After getting to the Vogelson Memorial Regional Library, children wait outside the Children’s Story Room by trying to stay inside the lines while coloring pages provided by the library, using new-looking crayons stored inside clear tubs.
If they haven’t picked out a book yet, they can search the children’s book options for some of their favorite titles, such as “Clifford the Big Red Dog” or “Arthur” to bring in with them.
It’s all in anticipation of the children being able to practice their reading with a cute, furry, and perhaps most importantly for some, nonjudgmental, friend.
Once it’s their turn, children who attend this monthly event have the chance to read to a trained therapy dog at the library, such as Valerie the Cardigan Welsh Corgi, in Voorhees Township.
The activity has been going on for approximately 10 years now at the library, and has allowed children since its inception the luxury of practicing reading out-loud in a place that they might feel safe.
“The idea behind the program is to give five children the opportunity to read in a comfortable setting,” said Kathy Mahoney, library associate. “It just creates that environment where they feel comfortable and aren’t judged for how they might read.”
“Plus, I hear the dog is also a good listener,” said Mahoney, with a laugh.
Valerie is certified by Therapy Dogs International, which requires that a dog pass a lengthy test process encompassing the overarching theme of being well-trained, obedient and loving of all humans, on top of passing medical examinations.
Lauren Simermeyer, Valerie’s owner, is head of the ER department at Mount Laurel Animal Hospital and has been volunteering her and her dog’s time at Vogelson Memorial Regional Library, as well as visiting an elementary school outside of Voorhees three or four times a month, for about two years.
All dogs can be different, still. Having seen her dog work in different settings, Simermeyer believes that she works best around younger kids, which led to Simermeyer’s monthly meetings at the library and elementary school becoming a recurring thing over time.
“They need to tolerate people wanting to be all over them and around them and really enjoy that, being touched and pet,” said Simermeyer. “Valerie, I think, does particularly well with young children, so that’s why we do so many young children events with her.”
Lauren currently owns seven dogs, all Corgis, and originally got into having some of her dogs trained as therapy dogs to help those in the community with Valerie’s grandmother, who just passed away this past November.
“I just really enjoy it. I think that the human-animal therapeutic bonding is exceptional to witness and be a part of,” said Simermeyer. “I want to do this on a pretty regular basis in the future, and the past two dogs I’ve had for this have been extremely well-suited for this type of work.
“It’s kind of like a gift for Valerie – again, I have seven Corgis but I would not do this with all of them,” said Simermeyer.
For Simermeyer, the change of pace from head of the ER department to therapy dog owner several times throughout the month can be refreshing, to say the least.
“For me to volunteer, it incorporates my hobby of spending time with my dogs,” said Simermeyer. “I like to show them and do things with them, but I also get to give back and allow her to be shared with a lot of other people because she’s special. I fit this into my schedule because it’s important to me.”
Over the years, she says she’s worked with children of all ages at all reading levels to help them overcome challenges when reading, from having general fear, to being slow readers or facing developmental disabilities.
“I think a lot of people can benefit from having unconditional love from an animal,” Simermeyer added.
Residents can register their children to attend events like this and more at www.camdencountylibrary.org.