Animal-assisted therapy programs are recognized worldwide. An animal’s powerful influence in the healing process ranges from giving prison inmates a purpose to helping an abused child bond with a new foster family to putting a smile on a hospital patient’s face. The types of animals involved in therapy programs are countless. This “In the Spotlight” is devoted to Gabriel’s Angels. The mission of Gabriel’s Angels is to deliver healing pet therapy to at-risk children, with the goal of nurturing their emotional development and enhancing the quality of their lives forever.
Gabriel’s Angels is a nonprofit organization that delivers healing pet therapy annually to 13,500 abused, neglected, and at-risk children throughout Maricopa County, Southern Arizona, and the Prescott area. Gabriel’s Angels’ Pet Therapy is the core program of the organization. It provides trained Pet Therapy Teams to agencies for the purpose of nurturing the emotional development of at-risk children to allow them to be free of domestic violence and enhance the quality of their lives. Gabriel’s Angels serves children from infants to 18-year-olds residing in crisis nurseries, domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, group homes, residential treatment centers, Head Start programs, and targeted after-school programs. All children are served equally without regard to gender, ethnicity, or income level. The program provides consistent weekly or biweekly Pet Therapy Team visits to partner agencies, with the average visit lasting 60 to 90 minutes with groups of 10 to 12 children. There is no cost to the partner agency to receive therapy visits for their children.
After field experience, the Pet Therapy Team receives training for the Animals and Children Together (ACT) Learning Project. ACT was developed as a result of an independent evaluation of Gabriel’s Angels’ pet therapy visitation effectiveness on impacting key behaviors needed for abused children to develop socially. The activities engendered in this project help their Pet Therapy Teams reach children on a deeper level. Training modules help the volunteers to understand the emotional effects of child abuse, the core behaviors being impacted, and the important role a Pet Therapy Team plays.
“I first heard of pet therapy from Jackie Sanborn, one of our Global Protocol Facilitators, when she told me how she and her two dogs and her cat would go to hospitals and assisted-living facilities to visit with patients and residents. To be honest, I thought it was a wonderful thing; however, I did not totally get it. Then I attended a fundraising breakfast held on behalf of Gabriel’s Angels and not only saw the magic pet therapy offered children in a video, but felt it. More recently, my daughter and son were at their father’s hospital bedside when a therapy dog entered his hospital room and put a smile on their father’s face—his first smile in a very long time. It was so moving that my son was inspired to get a puppy. This puppy would sleep on the pillow at the top of his father’s head. My most precious photo is one of my former husband looking up to the top of his pillow with a heartwarming smile. This moment brought me back to Jackie (Animal Health Foundation) and Pam Gaber’s amazing work (Gabrel’s Angels). Now I get it!” —Gloria Petersen
A personal glimpse into the life of
Founder/CEO, Gabriel’s Angels
I knew it was over and time to move on in my life. I felt empty, done, spent. I was running the animal health division for a pharmaceutical company. I was on the road all the time, living in hotels and keeping weird hours because of changing time zones. The job had consumed me. I had no life, no friends, and no sense of community. Honestly, I had crashed through the glass ceiling of corporate America and all I got was a headache for my efforts. I wanted more, lots more, something in my life that gave me a purpose. So, after some intense soul searching for the courage to go forward, I decided to leave my six-figure corporate job, where I was making more money than I could ever see myself spending, and venture into the “unknown.”
So I left. There was a little voice, a visceral flip-flop, which guided me forward into my new life, my new choices. It was a bit frightening and yet I was extremely energized with my decision. One of the first choices I made was to get a puppy. Now that I wasn’t a corporate traveler, I would be home and present and I could love and provide the care my new addition would need. My Mom had always insisted we have pets in our lives growing up. I was always dragging animals home as a kid. That was partly because I had better relationships with animals than I did with people. When my Mom said I was wrong, my animals always said I was right.
I was now ready for what was to become my “puppy looking” day. Now, if you have ever looked for a puppy before, you know there is no such thing as puppy “looking”—they are just so darned cute. You know that on that day, you will be coming home with a puppy! Your gut will know “That Special One.”
On January 1, 1999, I found my “soul dog.” He was an unending mass of soft gray fur, velvet ears that almost touched the ground, and the sweetest puppy breathe. Heaven! At eight weeks old, he was the only Weimaraner resting quietly in the corner, a male amidst five female “puppies on speed!” The synergy was immediate. I knew. I just knew. I recognized the flutters in my belly. This was love. I brought him home, and named him Gabriel.
In addition to animals, I have always loved little people because some day, they will be us! I had begun volunteering at the Crisis Nursery, a non-profit agency that serves children from domestic violence homes. I believed my nurturing presence on a consistent basis would make a difference to these “throw-away kids,” hopefully breaking the cycle of violence in their lives.
We always remember those moments that changed our life forever, those moments that when we spoke them out loud, we already owned them. For me, it was Christmas, and Gabriel was almost one year old. I had an idea to bring Gabriel dressed up like Rudolph to meet the kids at their Crisis Nursery Christmas party. What I thought was such an innocent and simple idea actually delivered a profound result.
The children bonded with Gabriel. These children don’t bond. They can’t afford the risk, the disappointment, the betrayal. In their world of survival, these children have had to learn detachment for protection. Bonding with Gabriel changed all that.
s a result, the children’s behavior changed. Instead of acting out with anger and violence, the children were calm, loving, and demonstrative with their affection. Gabriel’s ears (ah, those velvet ears!) soothed cheeks and chins, his soft belly became the perfect place to nuzzle, and nothing ever felt better than a kiss from Gabriel!
Known as the Season of Miracles, bringing Gabriel to this Christmas party changed lives in such unexpected ways, and everyone on staff knew it. “What did I do?” I asked myself.”
Everything had changed. My body was at attention now as a brave soldier. My eyes were open wide, taking in the messages that were firing in my brain. After visiting with the children, I sat in my car in the Crisis Nursery parking lot that Christmas day, talking slowly and quietly out loud to Gabriel, who was looking right back at me in the rear view mirror. He was sitting perfectly upright and was very aware of what I was saying in this conversation. We both knew something changed forever in us that day. Something happened. The kids were different. Their innocent sweetness and trust showed up. I said to Gabriel, “We can do something … or nothing.” I, or should I say we, chose to do something.
First, I did some research in the community. Surely, there were agencies that brought animals to kids. Someone had to be using therapy dogs—didn’t they? There were none. There was nothing like this. I knew what had to be done—by me, and Gabriel!
I defined my vision for Gabriel’s Angels and who we would serve: I determined that we would serve “every child in Arizona who needs us.” So far we’ve reached more than 100,000 children over the past twelve years. Our activities come from a behavior-based model. All of our therapy pets live with their owner. I keep a laser focus on Gabriel’s Angels and our mission. It’s not easy to say no to hospitals, hospices, and the elderly, when you know that there is great need there as well. But we need to make sure we keep our focus and not what I call “mission creep.” My years as a businesswoman have taught me we can’t be all things to all people.
I chose to serve children of domestic violence via pet therapy for abused, at-risk, and neglected youth. I could see the bigger picture. I believe that children can exit the cycle of violence, that their trusting connection to our animals breaks the mold of living which they are used to. Now they can choose to behave differently. We know their initial behaviors aren’t right, but that these behaviors are what have kept these kids alive. I believe we can reshape them, show them there’s another way.”
Today, Gabriel’s Angels is celebrating our thirteenth year; we have 172 volunteer therapy teams in the state of Arizona and twelve employees. Nonprofits supply lots of jobs—usually with people who have a passion for their work! I have been asked if we “pay” our staff and I never defend the “people cost.” Why wouldn’t we pay our staff? They are the ones who make it all happen!
In 2010 Gabriel died of lung cancer. Then my mother died of cervical cancer. They both died within two months of each other. I had been determined to save them both. I went to every doctor’s appointment, every chemo treatment. I suffered from what is known as “chemo fatigue” knowing huge pieces of my life were dying. So I honored the two years it took for me to heal from this compounded and devastating loss.
I knew when I fell in love with Gabriel that I entered a contract. He taught me compassion, which was totally missing in my corporate life. I can relate to people now. I feel a part of humanity. I spend my life looking to the future now instead of being stuck in the past. Gabriel’s Angels started by accident, but today it runs on purpose!
Contact Gabriel’s Angels
Gabriel’s Angels’ mission is to deliver healing pet therapy to at-risk children, nurturing their emotional development and enhancing the quality of their lives forever.
1550 E. Maryland Ave., Suite 1
Phoenix, Arizona 85014
P: 602-266-0875, Ext. 1
If you want to know more about pet therapy, you can investigate international pet therapy programs online, programs such as the Animal Health Foundation and Therapy Dog International (TDI). There is information about certification programs, along with rules and regulations.