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Ten years after the Joplin tornado: Immanuel Lutheran’s comfort dog ministry

JOPLIN, Mo. – Ten years ago, Joplin was hurting physically and emotionally after one of the deadliest tornadoes in history caused mass destruction. It was the perfect time for two brothers to make the move to Joplin.  Over the next several years, Louie and Jackson met thousands of people in their time in need, including our own Jordan Aubey.  The dogs were known, and will be forever remembered, as Immanuel Lutheran’s first comfort dogs.

Tim Hetzner, President of Lutheran Church Charities, says, “Comfort dogs, they show unconditional love. They’re good listeners. They don’t take notes. They’re non judgmental. How many friends do you have, that have those characteristics all the time?”

(Watch web extras with Hetzner below the article)

Chicago-area based Lutheran Church Charities, or LCC, started its comfort dog program after a shooting at Northern Illinois University in 2008.

“You never get back to where it was beforehand,” says Hetzner. “It just stopped. It’s a new normal.”

A few days after the Joplin tornado in 2011, Immanuel Lutheran Church in Joplin received their own comfort dogs, trained by LCC.

“Jackson was the one that had the lighter color nose,” says Jason Glaskey with Immanuel Lutheran’s comfort dog ministry. “Jackson was our happy clown. He was just a goof all the time. Louie was more all about business.”

Louie and Jackson began using their unique personalities to comfort Joplin tornado survivors. Those survivors visited Immanuel Lutheran’s parking lot for water, tarps, and food. People were in survival mode, except when they met the four-legged brothers.

“People were smiling. Opening up. Talking about things a little bit and releasing some of their emotion as they pet the dogs and spoke with the handlers,” says Glaskey.

“To listen to them. To pray with them,” says Heidi Gustin with Immanuel Lutheran Church’s comfort dog ministry. “You meet them with a fluffy, furry friend, and then you can reach out to them. You can give people a sense of comfort that you can’t using any other method.”

In the next years, the comfort dogs visited restaurants, stores, parks, nursing home, and hospitals. The canine counselors helped others recover after tragedy.

“We help young ladies who are in the transitional stage of aging out of the foster care, or need a place to stay, and just don’t have anybody,” says Melissa Thomas with LovinGrace.

Louie and Jackson were regulars at LovinGrace in Joplin, where women are given resources to be independent.

“Some girls come from tent cities. The girls who come here a lot of anxiety, and a lot of them who come here had pets before. So when the dogs came in, the girls smiled. They laughed. And when they left, their anxiety was less,” says Thomas.

Immanuel Lutheran took the pair to places to Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, after a shooting in 2012. Another LCC dog there, named Howie, met with a young survivor.

“The boy is laying on top of Howie. In what was probably two minutes, he lifted Howie’s ear and he told Howie what took place inside that classroom where the shooting was, because he was there First time he talked in four days.” says Hetzner.

Soon, there will be a new connection between Joplin and a comfort dog. After years of helping others, Louie and Jackson, nearly identical brothers, passed away. Although the dogs’ missions were complete, the ministry will continue.

There’s a few new puppies with LCC, and a few older puppies going through comfort dog boot camp.

“We train them not to bark. We train them to work with all age groups. They have to learn to work in situations where you have a lot of external noises. You could have sirens going off, because of the nature of what we do. So they’ve got to be able to work in such a variety of situations and stay focused on what their task is,” says Hetzner.

There are more than 130 LCC comfort dogs in 27 states. When the time comes for a new comfort dog in Joplin, it’ll fill the positions of, but not replace, Louie and Jackson.

“Dogs are one of the few animals that will look you in the eyes. Eyes don’t lie,” says Hetzner.

“We want to be ready for what is needed,” says Glaskey.

Built upon faith, Louie and Jackson’s legacy continues to show that care, love, and compassion comes in many forms.

Each comfort dog is known as a tool to establish or strengthen a person’s faith. Immanuel Lutheran will pay for their next comfort dog, and pays for travel expenses on national deployments. Click here to learn more about their comfort dog program and to donate. Click here to learn more about Lutheran Church Charities, and here to see their current roster of comfort dogs in training.

Web Extras:

Tim Hetzner talks about ongoing struggles from tragedies.

Tim Hetzner talks about the idea behind starting LCC’s comfort dog ministry.

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