Four Footed Friends

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When the turmoil of adolescence becomes dangerously confusing and painful for Boys Town Jerusalem junior high students, salvation may come in the guise of a rabbit. Thanks to a new animal therapy program at the school, 53 youth at risk are gaining emotional stability from observing and caring for a menagerie of four‐footed friends,under the guidance of a therapist.

“Adolescence is difficult enough for any teenager,” admits Boys Town guidance counselor Rivka Hakakian, “but for our students who carry the burdens of a difficult home life, adolescence can be an emotional catastrophe. The animal therapy and psychodrama programs provide vital arenas for troubled students to gain emotional skills to raise their self‐image and confidence.”

In 2011, Boys Town was tapped by the Ministry of Education for a small pilot project to bolster emotional health via various therapies. Thanks to the project’s nsuccess, Boys Town was selected to offer an expanded program for students with particularly acute behavior problems. “For some students,” explained the guidance counselor, “this is the last stop before being assigned to special‐education classes.”

The 53 participants have chosen either animal therapy or psychodrama, and attend one‐hour sessions twice weekly in small groups of up to four students.“Animals can provide the trigger for these boys to open up,” notes therapist Dafna Cohen. “For us, it paves the way for crucial emotional intervention.” Cohen carries a cage filled with rabbits, chinchillas, hamsters, and/or guinea pigs, and sometimes brings a dog. The animals are all supervised by a veterinarian.

“We open the sessions by analyzing the animals’ behavior. Some are aggressive, some are loving, some take advantage of the weaker ones,” explains the therapist. “It doesn’t take long for the discussion to turn to the boys’ own lives, which are at a transitional point of physical and emotional changes. Although some students were apprehensive, they’ve now bonded into a dynamic group where they can honestly talk about the stress, confusion or lack of confidence.”

Principal Rabbi David Twersky is delighted with the progress his students are making through the animal and psychodrama therapies. “We desperately need to expand the program for the growing numbers of students at risk,” he stresses. “As it is, Boys Town is privately budgeting additional hours over what the Ministry of Education is offering. More funds will enable us to add gardening, art and other therapies, as well as to create a ‘therapeutic farm’ on the campus for boys to take responsibility for caring for animals. Everyone wins when we can improve a boy’s emotional health now, and for his entire lifetime.”

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