It’s been three years since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, claimed the lives of six staff members and 20 children, including Charlotte Bacon, the 6-year old daughter of Joel and Joann and the little sister of Guy.
Following the shooting, therapy dogs were brought in from across the country to comfort students and teachers.
Although the Bacons have their own yellow Labrador Retriever, Lilly, they saw what a difference the therapy dogs made for Guy during his grief process. Inspired by that, the Bacons founded Charlotte’s Litter with a mission of getting therapy dogs into schools to assist with emotional support and literacy.
The family also wrote two books. Joel and Joann Bacon collaborated with award-winning author Renata Bowers on Good Dogs, Great Listeners: The Story of Charlotte, Lily and the Litter. And in young Guy’s book, The Dogs of Newtown, he profiled the 30 therapy dogs who visited right after the tragedy.
Through the work of Charlotte’s Litter and their books, the Bacons seek to offer hope and healing to others. They also honor the memory of Charlotte, an adventure seeker who decided when she was just 2 years old that she wanted to be a “doggie doctor.”
Dogster recently spoke with the Bacons about their books and the work of Charlotte’s Litter.
Joann: Guy is 13 now. When the tragedy happened, he was 10. When he first went back to school, it was very difficult. That soon turned around for him when the therapy dogs were brought in. The dogs really motivated and helped him reintegrate back into school. About 30 dogs came on different days and times and in rotation. The dogs were hugely received. With the dogs being there, it gave Guy a sense of purpose to go to school. He was really excited to see what dogs were going to be there.
Joel: We speak from our personal experience. Those dogs were really there for us. For our son, they made a difference. It was scary for him to go back to school, and these dogs made him feel safe. For our family, it has been an important part of our grief journey.
Joann: Yes, the dogs still come. They were there through spring 2013, and they came back for the new school year in fall 2013, but in a more limited and applied way. In the early days, the dogs were there for whoever needed them. Now, the dogs have a certain purpose and a certain job to do, whether it be literacy or coming to see a certain student.
Joann: The [therapy dog] program needed to evolve from being a response to a tragedy to being used in a more applied way. We are happy to see that the dogs are still there. The students continue to benefit from their presence. The therapy dogs helped our family while we were grieving, and that resonates with people.
We hope to advocate for the use of therapy dogs in educational settings by educating and connecting resources. We hope that by sharing how the dogs have helped our family, it will bring more awareness to how therapy dogs can help all families and children at schools.
There doesn’t need to be a tragedy such as what happened at Sandy Hook to bring dogs to schools. Dogs can be helpful in so many ways — literacy, social and emotional development, anxiety, stress management. There are a number of applications the dogs can be used for every day, every school, for most children.
Joel: Charlotte’s Litter has helped to introduce therapy dog programs in five school districts in Connecticut and New York. In Connecticut, those include our town of Newtown, Brookfield, Milford, West Haven, and Danbury. In New York, it is the Wappingers Falls School District.
We partner with a number of existing therapy dog organizations and help them connect to the school administrations. The big gap is connecting the dogs and the dog handlers to the people in the schools. This is how we can help.
Joel: The book is about Charlotte, Lilly, and her litter of stuffed animal dogs. Charlotte was always on an adventure of some sort. The stuffed animals in the book are actually based on Charlotte’s own litter of stuffed animals.
In Charlotte’s imagination in the story, she embarked on adventures with Lilly and her stuffed animals. Having adventures was a lot more fun than reading a book. But along the way, Charlotte discovers a true love for reading.
In the story, Lilly gets hurt and goes to the vet. Charlotte discovers that by reading to Lilly, they can have a lot of fun and adventures through books. Through the process, Charlotte helps Lilly to get better and recover. She also learns to love reading in the process.
Joann: The book is authentically Charlotte. We worked very hard in making sure that every part of that book was authentic to who she really was — right down to her stuffed animals and the clothes that she is wearing — and that the adventures are as authentic as could be. For us, it was really important that we got that story right so people could get to know who Charlotte really was.
Joann: Guy mentioned that maybe he should write a book, and we asked him what he thought. He said it would be nice to write something about the therapy dogs at school. We encouraged him to explore that. He went to school and started interviewing the dog owners. The information came through the interviews that he was conducting at school. He started to do that in spring 2013, when he was 10 years old.
He and his teacher started talking about putting that into a book form, but he took a break. About a year later, we approached it again and asked, “What are your thoughts on this? Do you want to do something with it?” He said yes. He and his teacher went back to the first manuscript and started to edit it. We found Mary Bloom, the photographer, and we went to press in the summer. It was released in September 2015.
It was sort of a type of therapy for him. In the end, he wanted it to be published, and that’s what we did.
Joann: We published two children’s books in one year. It was quite a feat that we did it! I think right now, we are just going to enjoy seeing both Charlotte’s and Guy’s stories being shared.
Joel: There are certainly more adventures of Charlotte and Lilly that we can share. So quite possibly, but we will see. By sharing Charlotte’s Litter and sharing Charlotte through the books, our hope is that we can help others and bring some comfort, especially those suffering from grief.
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About the author: Anne Forline is a freelance writer in Bellmawr, New Jersey. She is an unrepentant foster failure. Her three rescue bunnies, JoJo, Bennie, and Nibbles, allow Anne, her husband, Steve, and daughter, Cara, to share a home with them. Anne likes to run 5Ks and has placed a few times in her age division. She is also a certified teacher who homeschools Cara. Anne makes friends with all of the neighborhood dogs and keeps treats handy to give out when they pass by on their walks. See more of her work at anneforline.com, check out her Facebook page – Anne Forline – Writer, and follow her on Twitter at @AnneForline.