On most Mondays, there are special visitors in Homestead Village’s Apostles Center for Care: Muriel or Nola, two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, accompanied by Joni Soost, a Homestead Village resident.
As they enter, Joni greets residents, many of whom she has known for years, and if residents are receptive, the therapy dog will settle beside them or sit on a welcoming lap. The dog’s calm presence often eliciting smiles.
Joni has been doing this every week for 11 years. Her volunteer commitment began with 4H, fostering and training Seeing Eye Dogs and serving as the 4H leader for Seeing Eye in Lancaster County. One of her Golden Retrievers that had been released from Seeing Eye became one of the first therapy dogs trained by Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Services (KPets), which promotes well-being by sharing the power of human-animal interactions. Ultimately, this led Joni and her dogs to help Homestead Village, “And it’s gone on from there!” she says.
In addition to her King Charles Cavaliers, she’s trained many dogs as well as cats, rabbits, and others through KPets.
“There’s not one particular breed that’s best suited to serve as a therapy animal—any breed, any size,” Joni says.
She recalled a huge dog, a Leonburger, who would lumber in and put his head on someone’s lap, certainly not your typical “lap dog,” but he brought a whole lot of love and enjoyment.
Reflecting on her visits to Apostles Center, Joni said, “Every week is different, depending on the mood of the residents. But it’s great to see the positive effect of the dogs, brightening someone’s day, then calming someone else’s.
These visits from therapy dogs are part of the programming and services provided by Homestead Village for residents, led by Karen Braun, Lead Life Enrichment Coordinator, and Kaeleigh King, Life Enrichment Coordinator of Fickes House.
Karen explains, “It’s amazing to see how these visits bring residents so much comfort and soothing. Joni’s engagement and her social interaction enhances the experience.”
She added, “These animals provide a special emotional connection. There have been times when a resident is close to the end of life, and the dog senses that they are in a transitioning phase and will just snuggle close. Or the dog is attuned to someone having an off day and seems to convey, ‘You really need my love and attention.’”
Kaeleigh explained, “Our Life Enrichment program and philosophy focus on quality of life and the dignity of the resident, making sure that all emotional needs are met. Bringing in external resources like therapy animals is an important part of that—it contributes to this being the best experience that residents can have.”
“Besides pets, our programming incorporates gardening, like creating raised flower beds, going for walks along the park, entertainment including live music performances, cooking, baking, activities for mental stimulation, and arts & crafts,” Karen added “The mission being to create days filled with meaning and purpose, while meeting resident where they are.”
Joni’s involvement, Karen noted, represents one of many ways that Homestead Village residents can volunteer in Apostles Care. “During COVID, our volunteer program took a step back, but we’re now ready to take on more volunteers— reading to residents or delivering books to rooms through our library cart. Some brighten days through social visits, others come in to play bingo, etc.”
All of this helps to create a lively, socially active, stimulating environment for residents.
Gazing at two future therapy dogs on her lap, Shimmer & Charlotte, Joni said, “Being with the residents and seeing the happiness that our dogs bring to them— it’s something so special. It gives me pleasure to see people smile and hold the dogs.”
Karen and Kaeleigh reiterated that they would love to continue to expand the pet therapy program.
If you have a pet that you think has potential to serve as a therapy animal, you can either contact KPETS or reach out to Karen for more information.
All animals who come into the Apostles Center require documentation of vaccination and immunization status.