Last Saturday, July 19th, Donna, Charlotte and I stood on a dirt road next to the communal cabin at the Cumberland Campground in Woodlawn, TN, waiting for two truckloads of children, ages seven to sixteen to arrive. Donna, the humanitarian that runs ICHBA, and I agreed to supervise the dogs, while my sidekick Charlotte volunteered to snap pictures.
In short, we took ten ICHBA dogs, including seven six-week-old puppies and three older dogs, Meadow, Pippi, and Tori, to Camp T.A.G.to entertain and comfort kids who had recently lost loved ones in every way imaginable, from tragic car accidents to drug overdoses.
We only waited for five minutes before wheels crunched on the gravel road, followed by a chorus of “ahhhhh’s,” signaling the children had arrived and spotted their surprise guests.
We asked the excited kids, who came in all ages, sizes, and shapes, to surround the dogs and create a generously-spaced human fence for the seven puppies, then we set the Magic 8 loose, letting them work the audience with their irresistible charm, while I briefly explained their history.
From the second we allowed the children to hold the puppies, the M8 never set their tiny paws on the earth again, passed from one bewitched child to another. I was surprised but happy when the kids seemed just as interested in Tori and Pippi, who have a tendency to be shy and timid in strange places.
Tori and Pippi had never been in front of such a large crowd, but they did great, tails wagging, loving all the attention, and before I knew it, I felt comfortable enough to lose track of them, once in a while catching a glimpse of one child or another walking them near the communal cabin.
But the real star of the show was Meadow. From the minute I showed those twenty plus kids how she could give a High five on command, it was all over for Mead. I bet she raised her paw 100 times. At one point, Donna said Meadow’s head was slung over her shoulder, a resigned expression on her beautiful snout, not even looking anymore, just slapping her paw at whoever was next in line.
Cautiously at first, then more boldly, kids approached me and asked intelligent, insightful questions, like was Pippi shy because she had been abused? How did the dogs find us? What were their names? The children all nodded solemnly, like they completely understood my rational, when I explained I called the pups after characters on my favorite TV show, The Sopranos.
And, of course, there were just plain fun moments, like when a little girl wearing braids with colorful beads hanging off the ends, ran up giggling, saying a pup gave her “some sugar on the lips.”
When it was time to leave, several of the more animal-loving enthusiasts helped us load the dogs back into Donna’s mini-van, calling out each animal’s name and taking a head count, just to be sure. They didn’t want us to forget anybody.
For the brief time ICHBA spent with the children, there wasn’t a single tear in the joint, but as we pulled away, I saw a little girl, maybe eight, with long, red hair, a pink feather hanging off her brilliant tresses, comforting her friend, a freckled-faced tomboy with a pixie hair cut, who was pointing at our van and crying, as though she didn’t want us to go.
On the way home, Donna, Charlotte, and I agreed that witnessing the way those ten dogs made a crowd of grieving children laugh was the most rewarding experience any of us had in several years.
That night, I gave Meadow an extra slice of sweet potato in her food bowl, and I didn’t ask her for a High five for the rest of the weekend.