New Life Episcopal Church in Uniontown received two giant, fluffy surprises on Sunday, October 6, 2019, when a couple of enormous ten-month-old sheepdog mixes showed up for the annual Blessing of the Animals service. The service was officiated by Rev. Barbara Bond, who did not seem at all alarmed at the pony-sized visitors, even though her husband Norm Van Cleve sat nearby with their 17-year-old cat on his lap.
Perry Township mother and daughter Julie Kirker and Stacey Kirker-Evans had never been to New Life, but they brought their huge sibling puppies Charlie Brown and Harley Grace to receive a blessing for their future work as therapy dogs. “Since these dogs will be helping us minister to others, we thought it would be wonderful to get them blessed,” said Kirker.
These dogs will do hard work.
And their work will be intense. Harley Grace will be serving school children at Perry Township’s Pfeiffer Intermediate School, where Kirker-Evans teaches science. Charlie will minister to victims of sexual or domestic violence, child abuse and human trafficking with Kirker, who is a commissioned Pastor at NewPointe Community Church’s Canton Campus.
Kirker founded and leads the Women of Light ministry at NewPointe, which comes alongside other women-focused ministries to provide what is needed; meals, essential personal care supplies, and items for street outreach, for example. They’ve supported Rahab Ministries, and local hospital programs which serve victims of violence such as Mercy Medical Center’s Haven Program and Aultman Hospital’s Serenity Program. In fact, Kirker’s other daughter, Jenny Bitting, is a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) nurse at Mercy Medical Hospital. She is the one who suggested they make blankets for survivors, who often must give their clothes into evidence. Charlie will be a powerful addition for these trauma ministries.
Not a new ministry.
Kirker has a lot of experience with therapy dogs. From 2002 to 2010, her Paws of Grace Ministry served Mercy Medical Center’s volunteer therapy dog program. Her chocolate lab, Bear, was called in to help all types of patients, including those in the psychiatric unit and emergency department. Bear’s last job was with the children at Pfeiffer Middle School. Kirker-Evans took her mother’s therapy dog with her, and witnessed the impact Bear made with children with emotional, behavioral and developmental issues. After Bear retired in 2010, Kirker-Evans became a therapy dog owner herself to provide this amazing service to her students. Last year’s suicide contagion issue in Perry Township highlights the need for the affection, comfort, unconditional love and anxiety reduction therapy dogs can provide.
The plan changes.
Although Kirker thought her time as a therapy dog handler was finished, she says God had a different plan for her. In late January, her daughter asked her to evaluate a puppy for therapy dog potential. They sat in Hartville with a romping litter of what was thought to be a Newfoundland-Poodle mix as Kirker conducted her evaluation of Harley. That’s when a little brown and white bundle came to sit patiently against Kirker and proceeded to change her future.
As the puppies clearly began to look like Sheepdogs and not Newfoundlands, Kirker had their DNA tested. The dogs are in fact a mix of Old English Sheepdog, Newfoundland and Poodle. Sheepanewfadoodles? Kirker says it is perfect. “Jesus is the Good Shepherd, so it is fitting that a sheepdog helps minister to his people!”
Harley Grace and Charlie Brown are in the process of becoming certified therapy dogs. They’ve already passed the American Kennel Club (AKC) Puppy Star benchmark and are working on passing the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test. They are training at Canton’s Cosmic K-9 under Libby Smith and should begin therapy training in a couple of months. They will be able to begin their work early next year. Just in time to come to New Life’s annual social event for adults with disabilities!
Ministries to collaborate.
Like Kirker and NewPointe, New Life conducts many community outreach ministries, especially for children in need, the disabled, hungry and homeless. For example, for Lake Local Schools, New Life provides needed supplies for school counselors and nurses, collects school supplies as well as hats, mittens and scarves for children in need, and provides the turkeys included with the Junior Service Club Thanksgiving meals for struggling families. Members adopt families at Christmas, work at the Akron Canton Foodbank, and provide socks and blessing bags for the homeless, to name a few.
New Life hosts an annual, free social event for adults with disabilities. “We will certainly invite Harley and Charlie (and Julie and Stacey) to minister to our guests at our next event for adults with disabilities,” said Marla Jeane Maling, a member of New Life. “It’s no coincidence when ministries come together like this. We believe this is God moving in our world today and we are so glad that Julie and Stacey decided to come to our Blessing of the Animals service.”
Kirker agrees. She feels that God led her to this ministry with Charlie. “He’s anointed and appointed!” she said. “I’m very thankful that New Life offered the Blessing of the Animals service. It was a wonderful service. Everyone made us feel so welcomed and right at home. We really enjoyed meeting all the people there. I was so touched by their hearts for all God’s creation and for their community.”
Want more information?
For more information about New Life, visit ComeToNewLife.org. For information about Paws of Grace Ministry or the Women of Light ministry at NewPointe Community Church, contact Julie Kirker at (330) 904-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.