Finding comfort with K-9 friends
Kylie Yocum of Mundelein hangs out with Ladel, a member of the Lutheran Church Charities' K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry at St. Matthew Lutheran Church. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 17, 2013 5:12PM
MUNDELEIN — For the soft-spoken and shy Kylie Yocum, volunteering for a trip to Newtown, Conn. to help victims of the Sandy Hook shooting was a big step.
Talking wasn’t so important, however. Yocum, a 15-year-old Carmel High School student, was one of nearly a dozen volunteers who brought golden retrievers to the tragedy stricken community.
“I saw people really melt into the dogs,” Yocum said. “The great thing about a dog is you can tell them anything and they wont judge.”
The Addison-based Lutheran Church Charities had a team of dogs on its way within hours after the Dec. 14 shooting that killed 20 children and six adults.
That team stayed for two weeks, making appearances at local schools and churches and allowing residents to confide in “man’s best friend.”
Yocum was part of the second team that left Jan. 1 and returned Jan. 5. She said some people talked to the dogs, while others sat and pet them in silence.
Two of Yocum’s visits were to schools. Sandy Hook Elementary School is still considered a crime seen, so school functions were transferred to an empty former middle school in a neighboring town.
At new Sandy Hook Elementary and Newtown High School, the golden retrievers were used during therapy sessions for students to pet while talking to a staff member.
During those sessions, Yocum stood in the corner and kept quiet.
Yocum said the dogs were also utilized in conference rooms where students could go if they “needed a break.”
“When you’re watching it on the news, you only see the immediate impact, like the victims who were killed and maybe some of their family,” Yocum said. “When you’re there in person, you see all the ripples and realize there are way more victims, like friends, teachers, neighbors.”
While the K-9 Comfort Dogs program and LCC is faith-based, Yocum said the policy is to not talk religion unless initiated by a mourner. If the individual so chooses, the dog’s caregiver would pray with him or her.
Yocum was not asked for prayer during her trip, but she wishes she would have been more vocal with small talk.
“I had no idea what to expect going into the trip,” Yocum said. “This experience built a good foundation for other opportunities that might come up.”
LCC has 60 golden retrievers in six states, all devoted to responding to major tragedies. The first such trip was in February 2008 after the Northern Illinois University shooting. After the dogs were so well received on campus, a network began.
The first fully devoted dog, Ladle, was based at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Hawthorn Woods and lived with the Yocum family in Mundelein. The family now cares for Magic, who is semiretired, and Luther, who is still in Connecticut.
K-9 Comfort Dogs also responded to the May 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo., the March 2012 tornado in Henryville, Ind., and to New Jersey in after Hurricane Sandy.
Dana Yocum, Kylie’s mother, works for LCC as a regional coordinator of dogs. Dana was originally asked to attend the trip but she had scheduling conflicts. Kylie immediately expressed an interest in going and Dana was more than happy to make it happen.
“Any time Kylie is given an opportunity to do something kind, she hops on it,” Dana Yocum said. “I’m so proud of her for taking this challenge and giving up her winter break to help others. It builds character.”
Throughout Kylie’s trip, she posted pictures and thoughts on Facebook and quickly got a big following.
When classes at Carmel resumed, Kylie’s world studies teacher Brian Smithe was overjoyed and quick to praise her efforts.
Before her Connecticut trip, Kylie’s volunteering consisted of helping with events and classes at St. Matthew, as well was one-week missions to churches in Chicago to help with bible classes during her summers.