Therapy Dog Supports Head Start Children, Thanks to BOLD Thinking

Head Start BOLD Thinker: Deb Hendricks

In early spring, NHSA named 14 individuals as 2020 BOLD Prize winners in recognition of their extraordinary leadership in response to the unique challenges they encountered in 2020… Over the course of this summer, NHSA is sharing insights from each BOLD Prize Winner about leading through unprecedented times and overcoming uncertainty and adversity to support both staff and the children and families Head Start serves.

A willingness to take essential risks and an “all-in” investment in children and families’ betterment makes Deb Hedricks a 2020 BOLD Thinker.

Deb Hendricks is the ERSEA Coordinator for Marion Community Schools Head Start in her hometown of Marion, Indiana, where she is responsible for recruitment, enrollment, attendance, and more. Deb and her team at Marion Community Schools Head Start encountered many of the same challenges other programs faced in 2020: food insecurity among families, difficult decisions around operating in-person versus remotely, changes to their program when they did open in-person, and high levels of trauma and stress among families and staff because of all the changes happening around them. In addition to many typical decisions to address these challenges, Deb and her team took a creative approach to help families and staff cope with the trauma created by the pandemic and ensuing economic fallout — a therapy dog.

During the spring of 2020, Deb and her team were brainstorming ways they could support the mental health of children and staff and raised the idea of a therapy dog for their program. There were, of course, risks, questions of funding, and uncertainty around the logistics, but after careful consideration, Deb was one of the deciding voices to say they just needed to go for it, knowing that so much of preschool is social-emotional learning, and so many were dealing with the isolating effects of the pandemic. Deb knew the therapy dog would benefit the entire school community.

The dog, Westin, has been an amazing addition to the program. He helps children regulate their emotions, cope with separation anxiety from their parents, practice patience, and so much more. Just as important, and somewhat unexpectedly, he has also become a reliable friend to the teaching staff, providing comfort in a stressful year.

In her own words:

It’s easy to talk about the challenges and stresses and feel overwhelmed and inadequate. But to take steps to be innovative and think of new ways to serve children and families takes a lot of effort and courage, especially when it’s easy to do things the way we have always done them. We have a strong, quality program that has been in our community since 1965. We are well-respected and could be satisfied with the status quo. However, we know that there are always ways to make our program better and more effective, and we aren’t going to let COVID-19 be an excuse to be less effective or present in our community and in our services to our students and families.




Through all of 2020’s turbulence, Head Start leaders boldly faced the challenges and lived up to an unprecedented level of extraordinary leadership. The National Head Start Association’s 2020 BOLD was created to recognize, celebrate, and reward this bold leadership.

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National Head Start Association

National Head Start Association

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.

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