It’s Sunday afternoon and church-goers shuffled into El Paso’s historic Sacred Heart Parish. Tucked away in Segundo Barrio, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the church is a spiritual anchor to the predominantly immigrant community it serves.
Sacred Heart is less than one mile from an international bridge that connects El Paso to its sister city, Ciudad Juárez.
This weekend, there was a different presence of peace as four therapy dogs quietly sat in the back pew, ready to greet parishioners.
“I was very impressed by what they do and I thought it was very important that the community here see it, especially the children.” said Father Rafael Garcia. He invited the therapy dogs and their trainers to the Sunday Mass after meeting them earlier in the week.
Lead trainer Pamela Bolden said they traveled from New Jersey to El Paso to provide comfort to the community as it recovers from a mass shooting that left 22 people dead over a week ago.
“You know just get people, even in the moment, to just feel better, to de-stress and to help fully develop some resiliency to kind of work through these situations,” Bolden said.
Since its founding in 2015, the Tri-State K-9 Response Team has provided this kind of support to over 100,000 people across the country. They have responded to natural disasters, such as the California wildfires, and other mass shootings. One of the dogs, a 5-year-old golden retriever named Cici, also helped in the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting in 2017.
Therapy dogs from New Jersey greet members of Scared Heart Church in El Paso. These dogs and their handlers visit cities after tragedies like the mass shooting El Paso endured last week.
— Joey Palacios (@Joeycules) August 11, 2019
Mitzel Aveytia welcomes the support. She has lived in El Paso for more than three decades and she and her husband have been musicians with Sacred Heart for three years.
“Just out of the kindness of their hearts they’re here to provide that support and letting our community know we’re not alone,” Aveytia said.
Pamela Bolden said the therapy dogs’ work is only a small pathway in El Paso’s road to recovery.
“I think that the closeness of the community is definitely a factor in helping a community to heal. So, I think from what we’ve seen here this community is on its way to feeling better,” Bolden said.
The therapy dogs are set to visit school children on El Paso’s first day of classes Monday.
Lauren Terrazas can be contacted at Lauren@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Terrazas_Lauren.
Joey Palacios can be contacted at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules