As families mourn dozens whose bodies have been recovered from a collapsed condo building in the Miami, Florida area, some four-legged comforters are coming alongside.
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod deployed a team of its Comfort Dogs to the town of Surfside, to help mourners process emotions and find closure after losing family or friends in the collapse.
Responders transitioned from search-and-rescue to victim recovery efforts this week in the wake of the June 24 collapse of Champlain Towers South, a 12-story oceanfront condo tower. By Thursday, recovery workers had retrieved 64 victims and 76 people remained unaccounted for, The Associated Press reported.
Lutheran Church Charities sent members of its K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry to Surfside to assist mourners and first responders. Nine golden retrievers wearing “please pet me” vests and their handlers from as far away as Wisconsin arrived Tuesday, according to LCC spokeswoman Debra Baran.
In Surfside, the dogs have visited a local school and the memorial fence where flowers and other tokens have been placed in memory of the collapse victims.
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‘A weight was lifted off her’
“The kids are just going up and hugging the dogs and talking to the dogs about their fear,” the Rev. Dennis Bartels said.
Bartels is pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church and School in North Miami, Florida, about six miles from the collapse. Roughly 200 attended church and more than 400 students were enrolled in the Lutheran school before the COVID-19 pandemic, Bartels said.
A Comfort Dogs representative asked him if he’d be interested in having the ministry come. Absolutely, he told them.
“We did not have any members in the condo collapse,” he said, but some of the victims and survivors were friends of people in the church or school. “And the young boy, Jonah, who was pulled out of the rubble alive right after it fell,” knows some of the Holy Cross attendees through high school.
“We have some families who live in high-rises out there so now they’re very concerned,” Bartels added. “They need comfort too.”
He said the dogs have worked with children at both the Lutheran school and in the church. A handler asked one little girl at the school why she was sad, and the girl said she couldn’t say, Bartels recalled.
“She says, well you can whisper it to the dog and he won’t tell anybody,” he recounted. “The little girl got down there and whispered away in the dog’s ear. We have no clue what she whispered, but then she got up, and she seemed like a weight was lifted off her.”
Sharing mercy and compassion
LCC’s Comfort Dogs ministry is part and parcel of the overall mission of Lutheran Church Charities — “to share the mercy, compassion, presence and proclamation of Jesus Christ to those who are suffering and in need.”
The dogs get at least 2,000 hours of training, then they’re placed in handlers’ homes across the country, according to materials Baran, the spokeswoman, provided. They minister locally in schools, medical facilities and churches when they’re not deployed out of town.
When a crisis happens and LCC Comfort Dogs are asked to help, “the handlers drop their life, they erase the dog’s schedule, they get in their cars and they go,” Bonnie Fear said. She’s the LCC K-9 crisis response coordinator and is on site in Surfside with the dog teams.
The ministry doesn’t charge those it serves, representatives said. A handler funds a dog’s care themselves and their local church will help with the deployment costs. LCC sends out calls for donations, too.
A touch of comfort
The dogs are scheduled to be in Surfside until Monday, Fear said.
At the memorial in Surfside, families have hung messages, pictures and tokens on a chain-link fence. LCC volunteers made dozens of wooden memorial markers and drove them to Surfside to be placed at the memorial site, one for each confirmed victim. The memorial markers are part of the LCC Hearts of Mercy & Compassion Ministry.
The LCC Comfort Dogs have been visiting the memorial site so that mourners could interact if they chose to, Fear said.
When mourners see the dogs, “we say they’re here for you to pet. We don’t ask” if they want to pet the dogs, she explained, “because some people can’t even process a question. They’re in crisis.”
“We try to do very little talking because we want them to get their feelings, their emotions, taken care of with these dogs,” Fear added. “Some of them hold it in, they don’t want to cry, they’re fighting it, and these dogs help with that.”
Bartels, the local pastor, said mourners often “just get down and pet the dogs and it just kind of gives them peace”
One woman at the memorial told handlers she wasn’t a Christian.
“She’s an atheist,” Fear said. “But that dog went to her, the dog just kind of wanted to go to her. And she knelt down, and as she started petting that dog — the dog’s name was Hope — it leaned into her, and kept leaning into her more and more. She just said it was the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time.
“The dogs tend to know who needs to be touched,” Fear added.