Deborah Pack cheers on her prekindergarten pupils as they practice their writing at Outreach Christian School in Avondale, Mo. (pop. 440). “Reach for the sky. I’m a Y!” Pack says with outstretched arms.
Meanwhile, on the floor at the children’s feet, one class member is oblivious to the lesson. A deaf bulldog named Junior lumbers under a table and bumps Hannah Landers, 5, who reaches out and pats his back. Junior coaxes a few more pats before settling into his bed in front of the teacher’s desk.
Although he doesn’t know his ABCs, Junior has taught the 4- and 5-year-olds a thing or two about compassion and tolerance, and the youngsters are “pawing it forward,” as Pack calls her classes’ good deeds for the community.
The deaf bulldog teaches the children to look beyond differences, she says. “Junior shows us to give of our hearts unconditionally and to be content with who we are. He’s just a big love bug.”
Junior accompanies the class as they work on community projects, including sprucing up downtown Avondale, handing out emergency-preparedness brochures, and their “pet projects” of collecting dog food and donations for organizations that help pet owners in need. At donation stations at supermarkets and pet stores, the pupils (and Junior!) collected nearly $1,000 for animals who were left injured or homeless by a tornado last year in Joplin, Mo.
Each school day, the youngsters care for their canine classmate, taking him on walks and training him to follow commands that they give in sign language.
Karsyn McCartney, 4, takes her turn leading her four-legged classmate through an obstacle course in the school hallway. As they zigzag among traffic cones, both boost their coordination and Karsyn practices “left” and “right” as Pack calls out directions. At the end of the exercise, Karsyn signals to Junior to halt.
Communicating with the pooch isn’t hard for the petite blonde.
“He hears with his heart,” Karsyn says.
The language of the heart is exactly what Pack hoped to nurture when she brought the deaf puppy to school in 2010. Junior is the latest in a menagerie that Pack has raised in the classroom since 2003, including an orphaned goat named Preston, whose mother was killed in a hay-bale accident, and ducks Lillie and Lacie. Each spring, the class pet sports a mortarboard and parades across the stage to accept a diploma.
Only Junior is a returning scholar; he has wiggled his way into a tenured and tender position.
“He has kindness,” explains Presley Russell, 5.
The 70-pound mascot seems to relish his role as the class practices its most entertaining fundraiser, Junior’s kissing booth. A dollar donation earns a smooch.
Fox Cost, 5, eagerly lines up and puts his cheek near Junior’s mug, which is hanging out the window of the kissing booth.
“I didn’t get slobbered,” the boy says between giggles.
The enthusiastic fundraisers and helpers impress Avondale city clerk Patti Adams, who looks forward to their monthly visits.
“They pull weeds and pick up trash and Junior is always right there with them,” Adams says. “Here they came with rakes in hand one day.” The children hold holiday parades downtown and take cookies to businesses.
Dr. Jack Bozarth, a veterinarian at Banfield Pet Hospital in Joplin, was so touched by the youngsters’ ongoing support that he traveled 300 miles last fall to thank them in person. He brought along a beagle-mix named Frog, who lost a leg in Joplin’s tornado.
“We still have people with no resources and because of the kids, we’ve been able to help them,” says Bozarth, 69. “They sent us a check right after the tornado and they keep sending checks and cards. These kids are amazing.”