- August 12, 2016
OCOEE — Four years ago, Sydney, an Australian shepherd and chow mix, donned her red therapy dog vest for the first time.
After being rescued from a shelter by Thom Battisto, Sydney became a registered therapy dog, becoming a regular at retirement homes and elementary schools. Thus, the “Read to Sydney” program was born.
Bringing a personal touch to the program, Battisto felt a need to reach out and help special-needs children who struggled to read.
“As a kid, if I (were) in class and the teacher called on me to read out loud, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “But with her, she doesn’t know if they’re saying the word correctly or not; she’s non-judgmental.”
Schoolteacher and volunteer Deanna Nowak said that as soon as children see Sydney, they love her. Although there may be some initial trepidation because of Sydney’s size, her personality never fails to win them over.
“We can be in a room of 100 people, and one person will be afraid of her, and she will just gravitate toward them until she wins them over,” she said.
In December, the West Oaks Mall invited Battisto and Sydney to use an open space and bring their therapy to children there. With such a positive result, “Read to Sydney” has become a regular event every weekend for the month of June.
The program has had so much success that they have been recognized with letters from former first lady Laura Bush and the Obamas congratulating Sydney on her efforts to help children.
Although Sydney has helped hundreds of children, the biggest impact she has had has been on Battisto.
“The biggest thing people don’t realize is that she is a shelter dog and what a wonderful companion she is because she is a shelter dog,” he said.
With a smile, Battisto admitted Sydney actually rescued him. After losing two dogs within six weeks of each other, he knew that he needed another companion.
“I went to the shelter to look at a border collie,” he said. “Before they could bring the border collie out, Sydney walked out, sat in my lap and put her head on my shoulder.”
While his efforts are focused on expanding beyond his original area of Clermont, Battisto said he hopes to bring on 10 dogs to the “Read to Sydney” program.
Sandra French, marketing manager for the mall, hopes the shopping center can continue to see Sydney through August. However, doing so will need additional sponsors, as well as volunteers, to help maintain staffing.
“My intentions were that they would be a part of our summer-series program where we just have different events going on all summer long for kids,” she said.
To help with the expansion, Battisto hopes to be able to raise $50,000 to mobilize their efforts. He would like to purchase a small bus to transform into a reading center that will travel to different schools, libraries and events to allow more children to be able to read to Sydney.
Read to Sydney
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays through June
WHERE: West Oaks Mall, 9401 W. Colonial Drive, Oboe
Contact Emilee Jackson at [email protected].