News of an impending blizzard seemed to hit everyone’s phones at once. While the storm had been predicted, it had gathered speed and was barreling down on Concordia, MO earlier than expected. Some of the mourners who had been attending a funeral at Saint Paul Lutheran Church chose to leave town instead of attending the luncheon after the service. Rev. Michael Pottschmidt stayed with other people after the funeral.
During the lunch, news of devastating accidents spread on social media: Interstate 70 had been closed due to a significant accident. As the afternoon wore on, a second pile up involving many cars and trucks shut down Interstate again, this time right at the Concordia exit.
Rev. Pottschmidt heard through Facebook that the local community center announced it was opening its doors to shelter stranded motorists. He decided to go there and see if there was anything he and his congregation could do to help. When he arrived, he found Renee Ravanelli, who leads the congregation’s comfort dog ministry, starring Jessy a golden retriever.
Members Brave the Snow to Bring Jessy to People in a Moment of Need
Comfort dogs are trained to respond to people in distress. Ravanelli says, “It’s a ministry of presence. The dogs aren’t judgmental. They don’t even talk.” After speaking with the community center, it was clear that Jessy, would be welcome at the shelter. However, she was staying with her caregivers out in the country. Given the dangerous roads and the bad traffic, she didn’t think it would work out.
She posted on Facebook that she was disappointed they couldn’t bring Jessy in. Within minutes she had volunteers who felt comfortable navigating the snow in their truck to bring the comfort dog to the shelter.
When she arrived, Jessy sat in front of a little boy, who somehow had slept through the terrifying accident. “He lit up when he saw her,” Rev. Pottschmidt says. “Both the mother and little boy were delighted to see Jessy.” Ravanelli also had a stuffed animal version of Jessy that she gave to the little boy.
Although not seriously injured, people were stuck and worried about how they were going to deal with the aftermath of the accident. For example, people didn’t know what was going to happen to their cars, and also faced an unexpected night away from home. These are the kinds of things you never think about until you find yourself both thankful and unable to move forward.
A Ministry for Young, Old, Natural Disasters and Much More
Ravanelli first learned about comfort dog ministry after their congregation sent volunteers down to Joplin in 2011, after an infamous tornado ravaged the town. Comfort dogs served the Joplin community and St. Paul’s volunteers told the congregation about them. As an avid dog lover, she started to research.
At the time, the cost of acquiring a comfort dog (which is a purebred golden retriever) was approximately ten thousand dollars. Lutheran Church Charities works only with trusted breeders and provides the required and extensive training before the dogs go to congregations that apply for them. In addition, the dog’s handlers are also trained to be able to speak about the comfort and hope we have in Christ. As this ministry has become more popular and demand has increased, the cost has increased. However, if your congregation is considering getting a comfort dog, Ravanelli has this advice: do it.
A Ministry that Takes You Across the Community
“It’s an awesome ministry,” Ravanelli says. “Jessy gets us into places we wouldn’t otherwise [have access to].” In addition to being available for things like natural disasters, comfort dogs provide value in a variety of settings. Jessy regularly goes to the local nursing home, where many residents miss the dogs they had to leave behind. She also has regular appointments with the local elementary school. Kids feeling stressed or dealing with any sort of challenge can enjoy the calming effect of petting a dog.
Saint Paul High School also opened its doors, creating a space for people to stay overnight. Everyone worked with the state police to help transfer people safely. Rev. Pottschmidt notes, “This wasn’t planned. It was just paying attention as the need arose and saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going on exactly, but I’ll certainly go over there and see what’s going on and what the needs are.’”