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Healing the hearts of local children

Depraved hate crimes are committed with a “reckless disregard of the consequences or those affected,” recalled Cheri Thompson, founder of Healing Species, a lesson she remembers vividly from her time at the University of South Carolina Joseph F. Rice School of Law.

Through research, Cheri found two things most violent incarcerated offenders had in common—neglect or abuse during childhood and a tendency to inflict pain onto animals. “I had to stop this trend, so I decided to keep a legal pad with me to write whenever I had a revelation,” said Cheri. After countless hours of writing and working with book publishers, Cheri published a curriculum for students, and Healing Species was born.

Today, Healing Species is a dog rescue and rehabilitation shelter in Orangeburg, South Carolina, best described as a “dog sanctuary.” The nonprofit’s Compassion Education and Violence Prevention program is a 10-week social-emotional learning curriculum for third through sixth-grade students. The dogs’ recovery stories teach students compassion, forgiveness, responsibility, and, most importantly, love.

Since 1999, schools in Orangeburg and Lexington counties have participated in the education and prevention curriculum. Howard Middle School, Sheridan Elementary School, and the Columbia Department of Juvenile Justice are participants for the 2023-24 academic year.

Many children can relate to the dogs before rehabilitation, characterized by feelings of being lost, hurt, and upset due to neglect, abuse, or trauma. By loving and caring for the dogs, the students learn how to move forward and overcome these negative emotions.

“We want children to realize that when they are hurt, there is no need to harbor hatred,” said Cheri. “Love is revolutionary, and hate will never rule the day.”

The Healing Species curriculum helps students become advocates for the animals, themselves, and others. Often, students project their inner pain onto their counterparts. Still, with Healing Species’ intentional approach, they learn how to channel their bold personalities constructively and positively rather than in a harmful way—teaching the students to be more prosocial rather than antisocial.

The lessons students learn through the program stay with them for a lifetime. Years after completing the 10-week curriculum, a former student told Cheri they still vividly remember the playful and affectionate kiss of a Jack Russell rescue that taught them what it feels like to be loved.

The effectiveness of the Compassion Education and Violence Prevention program is seen in the students and statistics. The Journal of Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice published a study that showed that after completing the 10-week program, out-of-school suspensions decreased by 55%, acts of aggression decreased by 65%, and acts of empathy increased by 42%.

The program’s impact has spread as far as Montgomery, Texas—with numerous schools in the area now using Cheri’s curriculum as a part of Healing Species Texas.

The Orangeburg nonprofit is a 2023 recipient of the Aflac Charitable Fund Competitive Grant for its social-emotional learning curriculum. The grant supports programs and services promoting health and well-being, advancing education, and building upon Aflac’s commitment to children and families facing cancer. Each grant proposal ranges from $1,000-$10,000. Healing Species will use the funds to compensate program instructors and purchase program equipment.

Cheri’s goals for the organization are to expand the Compassion Education and Violence program to Lexington and Greenville counties, implement it at other schools, and continue serving its current students each year.

In addition to the Aflac grant, Healing Species also fundraises through Midlands Gives, a year-round giving platform, and received the Mary Seibert Charitable Trust grant in 2022.

“I just really feel the arms wrapped around us from Central Carolina . . . their support has really made all the difference,” said Cheri. “CCCF gives us a legitimate platform to speak and be known.”