Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - March 5, 2010

Going guinea

Loveable furballs proving to be an educational tool

by Emily West

On a Friday morning in Room 24, Christine Fitzsimmons' students were waiting with anticipation as she doled out the group activity assignments. One group was to play with blocks, while another was to create art with stamps. The other group of children was fidgeting with excitement on the colorful rug, waiting for a chance to read to Lily.

Lily, a furry, white guinea pig, has become an integral part of the special day class, a place for first- through third-graders with various special needs ranging from ADHD to difficulty with processing information. For example, one child has trouble transitioning, even if the new activity is enjoyable, Fitzsimmons said.

"I could announce that we're having an ice cream party and the student would still have a tough time," she said.

One of the bigger transitions making it difficult for the student was heading home from school. The anxiety connected to that time of day has dissipated, however, ever since the student started bringing Lily along to wait for the ride home.

Another student has difficulty retaining information. Through reading to Lily, Fitzsimmons said it has helped the student's ability to grasp and understand the story.

The Lily adventure began last year, when one of Fitzsimmons' students with behavioral problems had an affinity for hamsters. She said a pet store had a guinea pig available for adoption and came with a recommendation over hamsters for being more child-friendly.

Since then, Lily has made an impact in the class. Students who said they were afraid of animals at the beginning of the school year are now vying for a chance to take care of her on the daily chore sign-up sheet. The class has learned responsibility by learning to feed her and supply her with water, and also by taking her home on the weekends.

Donna Kellar is a second grader in the class who enjoys taking Lily home on the weekends and also during the summer. Andrea Mosley, Donna's aunt and guardian, said their family is glad to host the little animal. They have a handful of guinea pigs at home, but she claims Lily to be extra special.

"Generally guinea pigs are nocturnal," Mosley said. "But Lily sleeps at night. She loves the class and loves the kids and doesn't want to miss a moment. Given the choice of playing with other guinea pigs or kids, she'll choose kids."

Another quality Lily has is the ability to heal. Donna's mom died recently and it's been tough on her. Mosley said taking care of Lily has given Donna "an opportunity to shine." As part of the Abbie 4-H cavy (guinea pig) group, she is preparing to show Lily at the Alameda County Fair this summer.

"(Having Lily) especially helped Donna come into our family where her cousins already had guinea pigs," Mosley said. "I was adamant about not adding any more that I would have to take care of. But when we got into the classroom and saw she had one in her class that she was able to bring home, it made her feel like she was much more a part of the family."

Lily has become a part of the Mosley family, too, even when she's not around as Donna provides a report of her day with the cavy around the dinner table.

"There's always a smile and a sparkle in her eyes," Mosley said. "Things may not have been the same without Lily."

The affect on children with special needs is also apparent for Mosley's daughter, who has autism.

"We know, in our family, how wonderful animals are for children with special needs," she said. "(Special needs children) require stability. While hamsters are really cute, a cavy can live eight to 12 years. They are a very special friend for a long time."

Other qualities making them ideal pets, she said, are a calm demeanor, vocal interaction and that they are small enough for apartment living.

The Abbie 4-H cavy group has about 17 children involved. There, they learn about proper care and nutrition as well as about the animals in order for them to present their skills and knowledge to the judges at the county fair.

Jane Morehouse, who has been with the Abbie 4-H group since 2000, said she notices a bond between the children and the animals, particularly the guinea pigs.

"Sometimes children feel that they can't talk to a person, but you notice they talk to their animal," she said.

She encourages this bond by reminding the children to care for their animals when they get home. Mosley said she has noticed that Donna and her children, who are also in the program, have gained self confidence in being able to protect and care for these animals.

"These are just delightful pets," Morehouse continued. "They fit today's economy and space restrictions and add so much more, 10 times more to a child's life than what it takes to take care of them."

Until the fair comes, Lily seems to be enjoying life in the classroom. On a recent weekday morning, Donna and some other classmates read her "Duck on a Bike." As Fitzsimmons turned the page, a student would be able to pet Lily. Before she could be passed around the circle, the student would then provide a summary of the page's words and explain the pictures to Lily.

Animal therapy has also been used for years through the Pleasanton Public Library's Paws to Read program. This concept is also used in this classroom once a week when Paws to Read volunteers visit and the students read books to a dog.

Fitzsimmons said she is glad to have the uncommon learning aids in her class.

"It encourages the students and has helped build a community," she said.

Learn more about Abbie 4-H cavy program

Abbie 4-H meets the second Wednesday of the month at Mohr Elementary School. The program runs from September through June, with the county fair being the year-end event. Those interested can visit www.abbie4h.org.

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