At this year's holiday season in Houston, joy is shared among a group of Christians with hospitalized children, senior adults, and along with the animals.
The Faithful Friends animal-assisted therapy ministry of University Baptist Church in Houston is reaching out to hospitalized children, incarcerated teens and senior adults who don't have any place to stay.
"These pets have a very special way of demonstrating God's unconditional love," said Shari Ferguson, founder of the ministry. "They don't care what you look like, whether you've had a bad day or a good one, or whether you have physical or emotional pains. They love you just the way you are all the time. This is what people who are in long-term care facilities or recovering in rehabilitation hospitals need most of all--to be loved just the way they are."
Each year during Christmas season, the animals visit people who are hospitalizes with small Christmas gifts. This year, they visted Regency Village Nursing Home and delivered the decorated Santa hats.
Fergusan said the animals make an extraordinary impact during the Christmas season, particularly at nursing homes since 50 percent of Texas nursing home residents don't have spouses or relatives and 60 percent of them have no regular visitors.
"Sometimes we take pictures of the residents with their favorite pet that comes to visit them," Ferguson said. "When we gave the pictures to one resident, she sat with the pictures in her lap and kept looking at them over and over again. She liked them so much that she said she was going to put them in a special place on the wall along with the pictures of her grandchildren."
The Faithful Friends ministry also make regular visits to the Devereaux Treatment Center for Youth where children who have experienced physical or sexual trauma and who have been involved with gangs are working with counselors for emotional treatment.
The animals, especially the dogs, play the key role in treatment as the children learn how to use positive reinforcement while training the dogs by giving them such commans as "sit" and "stay."
Ferguson shares a story about a boy who had been physically abused. After visit of a dog named Bear who had experienced similar physical abuse, the boy opened up his heart and started telling his own situation as he developed relationship with Bear.
One of Ferguson's dogs is particularly loved by the youth. Bear is a chow she found with a clothesline tied around his neck and showed obvious signs of abuse. When she finally trapped the dog in an enclosed yard and won its confidence, animal specialists told her the dog probably never would recover from its injuries or be friendly with humans again.
"Many tears flowed--from the boy, from me and the therapists," Ferguson said.
The ministry group, which began in October 1993 with only two dogs and two humans but now the ministry numbers more than 150 two-legged volunteers including outside of University Baptist Chuch representing all ages and even more animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits, a turtle, a ferret and a rat.
"We allow them to be a part, because I believe Faithful Friends can be a ministry to everybody involved," Ferguson said. "I tell everyone up front that we will pray before each visit for the people we will minister to, the people who will be taking the animals and for the animals themselves. I also let them know that those in Faithful Friends pray for the needs of one another just in general. Now, if they are not comfortable being a part of a group that prayer is such a large part of, I tell them that maybe they need to find another group."
Like many of the participants, Jeff Heflin, leader of one of the nursing home groups, was attracted by a way to be of service to others.
His son, Kevin is pleased that his dog, Sasha, is making the people they visit happy.
"I like how the residents are so happy when they get to see Sasha and the other animals and pet them," he said. "It makes them really happy, and I like that."
The Baptist Standard adds that the ministry conducts temperament tests for its animals monthly. This is not an obedience test, but a measure of how the animal reacts to strangers and to strange environments, assuring no signs of aggression are present. Animals also must have up-to-date veterinary records on file.
Pet ownership is not a requirement for participation. Many of the volunteers have more than one pet, but the rules of the group establish a one-to-one ratio of human to animal on visits.