Cheri Brown Thompson
The Healing Species
Orangeburg, South Carolina
"Just because someone has hurt you, that is not who you are," says Cheri Brown Thompson. This core belief informs everything she does. Cheri was a law school graduate in 1999, interviewing prison inmates, when she discovered two things: that violent offenders were very often abused as children, and that their own violence often began as children with hurting creatures—usually animals—more vulnerable than they were.
"The missing link was compassion," Cheri says. To help provide that link, she established The Healing Species, a program in which rescued dogs help teach children how to cope with abuse, neglect, and grief, all the while nurturing both self-respect and respect for the feelings of others.
Cheri gave up practicing law to found and direct the ambitious 11-part program without salary or reimbursement for expenses. It is designed for 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-graders who, on the cusp of their teenage years, are old enough to understand the message, which she says is "about acknowledging matters of the heart."
In the first week, for example, a trained instructor brings a rescued dog into the classroom and narrates its history of abuse and rescue. The lesson, Cheri says, is that "What happens to you in life is not what defines you. And what this dog did is keep her heart and her love."
The Healing Species reaches between 2,500 and 3,000 students annually in 15 to 20 schools throughout South Carolina. Satellite programs have also been established in Seattle, Miami, and Phoenix. An especially valuable part of the program, Cheri says, is that it not only "lifts children up from their own world of hurt, but it helps them evolve to a point where they realize they must give back." Indeed, a formal evaluation of the program determined that, for participating children, out-of-school suspensions have fallen by 55 percent, general aggressions have decreased by 62 percent, and choices based on empathy have increased 42 percent.
Cheri’s own captivating smile and healing hands reach well beyond the classroom; the program urges children to tell a reliable adult when they are the victims of abuse, and one such confession prompted her and her husband to take in two foster sons. Now 10 and 11, they are part of the Thompson family—along with 12—yes, 12!—rescued dogs.
When Cheri introduced the program to older teenagers in maximum-security facilities in the Department of Juvenile Justice, she discovered that it sometimes takes longer "to break the ice." Still, when asked by an instructor what they had learned, responses ranged from "You have to talk to people about a longtime problem" and "You can have power but in a positive way" to "I can handle a bad situation by responding with generosity."
Behavior, though, still speaks louder than words. One teenager incarcerated for a violent crime later told "Miss Cheri" about rescuing four puppies he’d found abandoned by the side of the road. "I took them to a shelter," he said. "They didn’t have to suffer. I knew that the last hands that touched them were hands that loved them. They were my hands."
Photograph: Michael Weschler
Text: Akiko Busch