WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — As students and staff members at schools across the nation try to come to grips with the tragedy in Texas, one Palm Beach County public school already has some extra support on campus.
There are more than 2,300 students at Forest Hill Community High School in West Palm Beach, but there’s one who bring smiles, happiness, and comfort wherever she goes.
Her name is Ms. Ellie Mae, a certified therapy dog.
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“Usually I’ll hear it on the radio. Heidi, bring Ms. Ellie Mae here. Bring Ms. Ellie Mae there,” said school treasurer Heidi Watkoski, the precious pet’s owner. “Between staff and students, she has helped both.”
While Watkoski is Ellie Mae’s legal owner, the therapy dog really belongs to the whole school.
“I came in one day and there was a dog here. And I was like, why is there a dog here?” said student Gabby Killingsworth.
Killingsworth is one of Ms. Ellie Mae’s biggest fans.
“The warmth of her body makes me relax a little bit and makes me think, oh, I’m going to be OK. Everything’s going to be fine,” Killingsworth said.
It’s that connection that Principal Esther Rivera knew was needed after a year of COVID-19, a high rate of absences, and emotional struggles.
“I came to [Heidi] and said, would you be interested in getting it certified to be a service dog and come to work with you every day to assist our students?” Rivera said.
And Ms. Ellie Mae is making a difference.
“Our fights, our altercations have decreased dramatically,” Rivera said. “We really don’t have disciplinary issues here. And additionally, students requesting help has increased.”
“Ellie Mae, she saw me crying and all she did was get a toy and brought it to me and jumped on me saying, you know what? I’m here for you to change your world and make you forget what’s going on at home,” said student Jasmyn Robinson.
Those moments can change the course of a day, a week, even a school year.
“I have crippling anxiety where I shake a lot in class or right now,” said student Annie Akther. “So Ellie Mae helps me a lot. And I would go to her just to find comfort and some peacefulness.”
And as we come to grips with another tragedy on a school campus in our country, Ellie Mae’s four paws can help more than she may realize.
“These factors like a shooting, different things happening in society, do affect student absences,” Rivera said. “So having Ellie Mae on campus, that emotional support dog, it truly provides students that outlet to come to school and feel safe.”
“You feel like you cannot really worry about those things because your whole focus is on her at the moment,” Akther said.
So on the difficult days, these students don’t underestimate the power of a good belly rub.
“She’s my best friend,” said student Ashley Bissoon.
As part of a recent mental health event at Forest Hill Community High School, students were able to sign up to spend time with Ellie Mae as part of their schedule.
Watkoski has also taken Ellie Mae to visit students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland — the site of a deadly mass shooting in 2018 — and will be part of a therapy dog group at the Broward County Courthouse when the sentencing trial begins for Nikolas Cruz.