Lesson of love and loss: Cumberland-North Yarmouth school community mourns therapy dog
CUMBERLAND — A dog may be man's best friend, but a special dog named Jasmine had many best friends in the School Administrative District 51 community.
Jasmine, a black Labrador retriever, was the heart of the district's therapy dog program, which was started by her owner, Denise Allen, 11 years ago. Allen, a health and science teacher at Greely High School, received Jasmine as a puppy, and later got permission to bring her to school, where the canine immediately hit it off with the kids.
And it's those past and present students who are mourning Jasmine's death Nov. 30 from a mast cell tumor. She was 12 1/2 years old.
The students helped to train Jasmine, who was licensed through Therapy Dogs International.
"I'm just so blessed to work in a district that lets me facilitate this program, because it teaches about community service, and altruism, and unconditional love," said Allen, who has a teaching certificate in animal-assisted education.
Jasmine's primary role had been working with special education students, helping them reach their academic, physical and occupational therapy goals. But she touched a wide variety of students and staff alike.
Some students worked with Jasmine through a reverse mentoring program. They learned dog handling skills and brought Jasmine to elementary schools to work with students there alongside an educational technician.
At times she was "just being here in the room for kids that are just having a tough day," Allen said last week in her classroom, where Jasmine spent much time over the years with her human buddies.
"Jasmine had a very high emotional intelligence," Allen said. "... She was just a giant love bug, and she would just know when you needed a little extra (tender loving care)."
She recalled the relationships Jasmine had with her students, and how that connection forged friendships between Allen and the students that continue past graduation.
Jen Leyden – who graduated in 2006, earned two degrees involving business and horses, and has licensed two therapy dogs of her own because of Jasmine – is an example of that.
"School was always a struggle because I did not want to be there, that is until Jasmine started coming," Leyden said in an e-mail. "She gave me something to look forward to every day and motivation to get my school work done. If I was having a bad day I could always go to her to escape. Having that escape was the reason I made it through high school. Jasmine knew what to do all on her own, and knew how to comfort you just so. Her love and smiling face has a spot in my heart that I often look back to which still brings me joy, a smile, and as always an escape."
Kathleen Copp, who worked in the therapy dog program from 2007 until her 2010 graduation, called Jasmine an outlet, an anxiety reliever, a teacher, an aid, and most particularly a friend.
"When Jas put her Therapy Dog vest on she knew it was time to work, and she never became distracted or nervous," Copp said in an e-mail. "She was so intuitive to each child and she was truly a natural at her job, and a one-of-a-kind dog.
"Jasmine worked with a variety of children with a range of different needs," Copp added. "Some of the children were non-verbal, and it was still so obvious how much she meant to them, (since) as soon as she walked in the door they immediately started grinning from ear to ear."
Allen said the program has made her both a better person, and a better teacher.
"Jasmine taught me so much, about reading the non-verbal body language of my students, and creating a different learning environment that's a little bit softer for students," she said. "Yes, I'm a teacher, and I teach subjects, but more importantly ... I provide a safe place for students to just be teenagers, which can be really hard sometimes. And to me that's more important than the subject that I teach."
Despite the sadness surrounding Jasmine's death, her story includes a legacy that will impact the next generation students through 3-year-old Jade, another black Lab owned by Allen.
As she grew older in recent years, Jasmine's job was to prepare Jade to be a therapy dog. The younger dog started coming into the classroom last year.
Jasmine, healing from surgery, didn't come into class regularly this past year, although Allen brought her in once in a while to see the students, who she readily recognized. One student, coping with seizures, gave Jasmine his good luck charm.
Caitlin Croce, another student, said Jasmine taught her how to work with Jade, and with other pupils. "It's a great program," said the junior, who works with Jade during study halls.
"It was hard to see Jas go, but the memories of her ... will stay with me forever," Danielle Fossett said in a letter. "Before I graduate, I hope to see Jade become as good as Jas."
The senior also noted that "November 30 was the hardest and saddest day I've had to go through. Thankfully I have many great friends to help me get through that day."
Students visited Allen at her Windham home the day of Jasmine's death, to lend their support. "I'm so blessed that I have such great students that have such emotional intelligence themselves," Allen said.
The experience has allowed Allen and her students to grieve together, and taught an important lesson.
"It's OK not to know what to do or to say, and it's OK to love, and it's OK to hurt, because that's part of loving sometimes," Allen said. "That's sort of like the final lesson (Jasmine) taught."