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Sammy & Spartacus— A Special Bond Between A Dog And A Girl

Samantha “Sammy” Kuruc, 9, is “an amazing little girl who has been through a lot,” said her mother Jill Kuruc.

Sammy was among the Sandy Hook School students who fled the building on 12/14.

“My daughter described vividly” things that she saw and heard and will never forget, Ms Kuruc said. “There isn’t a kid I know that isn’t different…the things they don’t feel comfortable doing, the things they’re afraid of…”

But the tragedy’s aftermath brought with it “so many sweet connections” during her daughter’s recovery process, Ms Kuruc said. Connections especially with dogs. “Therapy dogs are part of her recovery…there are no words to thank them enough,” she said.

Two of Sammy’s connections led to a surprise visit on Saturday, April 26, from Seattle journalist Ranny Green. Sammy had first met Mr Green at a therapy dog event in Newtown in June 2013, when he interviewed her, among many others whose lives had been touched by the dogs.

This past February Mr Green won the Dog Writers Association of America (DWAA) Maxwell Award for a two-part special Newtown/Sandy Hook therapy dog feature he wrote for the Seattle Kennel Club (SeattleDogShow.org) (website: seattledogshow.org/when-it-comes-to-healing-newtowns-therapy-dogs-have-no-age-limits-for-coaxing-a-smile-and-easing-pain) that were published in late summer.

He was also the only member of the national media with permission immediately following 12/14 to enter Reed Intermediate School to interview staff and students along with parents. The school was opened as a crisis center following the tragedy.

Also stopping by for a surprise visit Saturday was Sammy’s favorite comfort dog, Spartacus, an Akita, and his owner Brad Cole. Spartacus had been at Reed to provide therapy and comfort following 12/14, which is where Sammy first met him.

Ms Kuruc recalled that her daughter only agreed to visit the school-turned-temporary counseling center because of the dogs that were there.

“She laid on Spartacus for two hours,” Ms Kuruc said. Mr Cole had asked Samantha if it was ok to let Spartacus go see other children, Ms Kuruc said. “She said Yes, but Spartacus didn’t want to leave her,” she said. In coming months Ms Kuruc and Sammy would share their story with Mr Green.

In another article by Mr Green published at SeattleDogShow.org, which included comments from Ms Kuruc and a picture of Sammy with a therapy dog (seattledogshow.org/from-politicians-to-psychologists-therapy-dog-teams-leave-a-powerful-legacy-in-newtown), Mr Green wrote in part: “In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, professionals’ eyes were opened as to the role of therapy dogs in aiding children and first responders in the hours and months following [12/14].

“These furry counselors put a happy face on many kids for the first time in days and weeks,” Mr Green’s article continued. “And they delivered a gentle emotional outlet for firemen and law-enforcement officers...”

Ms Kuruc recalls the therapy and comfort dogs that came to Reed Intermediate School right after 12/14. Describing her daughters’ traumatized state, Ms Kuruc explained that the young girl had experienced many losses. Dogs began to play an important part in Samantha’s life.

In his article, Mr Green had quoted Ms Kuruc as saying, “Two days after the shooting we brought her to Reed because we knew she had to talk to someone. She didn’t want to leave home and was really shutting down but when she saw the dogs there she opened up a bit.”

‘Small World Weird Way’

Next came the magic “in a small world weird way,” Ms Kuruc said.

She and Samantha encountered Mr Cole and Spartacus at a fundraiser in Hartford in 2013. The Kurucs had not seen him in months.

“We had a ‘reunion,’” said Ms Kuruc.

Noting another “weird connection” at that time, Ms Kuruc’s friend Kirsten Strobel who is a teacher at Reed Intermediate School, asked if Ms Kuruc would be interested in talking to writer Ranny Green. She had agreed, and soon “told him about Sammy.”

As he learned about Sammy, he said, “I had to meet her, which I did the following day in Newtown.” He spoke with her during a thank you ceremony that Mr Cole had coordinated for the many therapy dog teams that had helped residents since 12/14.

They later got together at a restaurant in Sandy Hook Center.

“I went to meet [Mr Green] and there is Brad and Spartacus, who had also been talking to Ranny,” she said.

Of that meeting Mr Green said, “I remember sitting at a booth in a Sandy Hook restaurant with Kirsten and Jill, on the final day of school last year and talking for a couple of hours about the role of the dogs at Reed and how they specifically helped Sam [from her mother’s perspective].” He referred to the afternoon as “a very emotional interview as one question led to another and both Jill and Kirsten let it all out emotionally.”

Mr Green has since kept in contact with Sammy and her mother and sent “cute books about dogs, and went out of his way to stay connected,” Ms Kuruc said.

When Mr Green won his award, Sammy was on his mind.

During his acceptance speech in February at the Hotel Pennsylvania ballroom in New York, he said, he mentioned “that he wanted to give the award to a special little girl.”

He recalls one of life’s “highly precious” moments during his speech. He said in a recent e-mail that when he was announced as the winner at the DWAA banquet, “It blew me away.”

He asked the program chairman to say a few words.

“I told them how this was one of the most meaningful Maxwells I have won through the years and mentioned briefly how I planned to return to Newtown this year and present it to a special young girl I had befriended, along with her mom.” Mr Green had paused in his speech, “teary-eyed,” he said, but noted the “tears streaming down my face.

“When I looked up everyone in the room was standing and applauding,” he said. “It totally blew me away. Some moments in life are special and highly precious. This was one of those.”

Mr Green said he decided to give his award to Sammy after writing his story last summer. He began thinking about how to “give back” and “acknowledge what the therapy dogs have done for the students in Newtown since that fateful day.” He had also thought, he said, “If I am fortunate enough to win the Maxwell, I want to bring it back to where it belongs: Newtown.”

Recalling his time spent with Samantha and Jill Kuruc, Mr Green said, he “was very taken by young Samantha’s demeanor and love of dogs. I thought then, she would be the perfect recipient of the medal if I am fortunate enough to win.”

Jill Kuruc is happy at the impact her daughter has had an others.

“It’s amazing that this little girl made an impression on adults’ lives,” she said. “I am so proud to be her mom.”

The Reunion

On Saturday, April 26, Sammy knelt down and rested her head on Spartacus, who was sprawled on her kitchen floor as she and her mother entertained a few guests. That day Sammy was enjoying a reunion with the big, calm therapy dog, his owner Brad Cole, journalist Ranny Green, and Kirsten Strobel, all of whom had grown to know one another well after 12/14. Spartacus had spent a lot of time in Ms Strobel’s classroom after the shooting.

Soon she and Mr Green stood in the center of her kitchen where he held something concealed in a package behind his back.

Mr Green pulled out a laminated Westminster Kennel Club media pass on a lanyard and placed it over Sammy’s head. She looked down to see what she now wore around her neck. Mr Green is co-director of the Westminster Kennel Club media team and had arranged for a lanyard and media clip with her name on it, from this year’s dog show. He also gave her a 2014 Westminster Kennel Club guidebook and several dog books. He gave her other dog-related gifts including videos, and a puzzle.

“I love surprises,” Sammy said.

“There is one more coming,” said Mr Green.

“No words,” said Sammy.

“Do you want to know what it is?” he asked. Mr Green, who had made this special trip from Washington to give Sammy her surprise, said, “Here is what I brought you from Seattle. Remember when I talked to you [in the summer of 2013]? I wrote a story about that.”

As emotion crept into his words, he said, “I won an award.” Dangling from a ribbon was the Maxwell Award, which he draped over Sammy’s head.

“But, it’s really yours. It’s coming home. It’s mine, but it’s yours,” he told the girl.

Minutes later Sammy raced down the hallway to her bedroom and came back with a necklace with a charm that read “Dream,” which she gave to Mr Green.

 Brad & Spartacus

Brad Cole said in a recent e-mail: “The dogs were the most effective mental health resource Newtown had. Period.

“The comfort the kids took in knowing ‘their dog’ would be around was important for their sense of normalcy and security,” he wrote.

The presence of dogs at Reed “made a world of difference for the kids’ emotional well-being,” he said. “Not to mention the teachers and staff knowing they had an additional resource for the students ... and themselves.”

Several therapy dog teams “vowed to stay involved in the community so that the kids always had a familiar furry friend ... We made sure to be at events outside of school. Dogs and handlers would appear at basketball games, baseball games, town events, the Sandy Hook Christmas Tree Lighting, Sandy Hook 5K, and more,” Mr Cole said, “That was successful.”

He and Spartacus formed a K-9 first responder team on 12/14, which he documents in an article he wrote. In his “Newtown Day Zero And Forward,” he said, “I hoped to be of assistance at Sandy Hook,” on a morning of December 14 that was “just like every other day, until 9:34 am…” Later that evening he and Spartacus made themselves available to the families prior to a church service at St Rose of Lima. The next day at Reed, he noticed that once counselors “saw the impact [Spartacus] had, the requests for dogs in sessions expanded quickly.”

Often, families would return to Reed for follow up visits and request to sit with the same dog.

“This proved invaluable because the initial counselor might not be available and the dog teams were able to bridge that divide,” Mr Cole said. “The dog teams provided a sense of continuity in an ever-shifting environment.”

Children who may not have spoken to adults would often talk to the dogs “about what happened that day,” he said.

One child reportedly panicked at the sound of the school’s public address system, thinking they were about to go into lockdown.

“This child was sitting with one of our dogs; saw the dog was not concerned, gave the dog a hug, and was able to calm down,” Mr Cole wrote. That child soon “unexpectedly” spoke about the morning of December 14, he said..

In a letter to Spartacus and Mr Cole, one little girl in Newtown wrote that she “walked into Reed and saw a big dog in front of me (this dog was about as big as a deer!),” she wrote. “Time seemed to stand still and all that mattered was the adorable dog.” Very quickly she felt magic “spread through me. It wasn’t magic though, it was just happiness and love,” the girl wrote. “My heart was beating faster because … I needed to get closer to this big dog,” the girl wrote. She felt “so supported and loved,” as she describes petting Spartacus. When she is with Spartacus, she said, she hurts “a tiny bit less.”

In the wake of tragedy is “hope and change,” said Mr Cole. He said in a recent e-mail, “Because of Newtown embracing therapy dogs, they are now being incorporated into police departments, hospitals, mass casualty response plans, and at other emergency departments to assist in helping those impacted by trauma and tragedy.”

Two days after visiting with Sammy on April 26, Mr Green said, “Sam has become my long-distance Sandy Hook angel.”

On the day he left to return to Washington, he remembers her saying, “Please come back.”

In a poem Sammy wrote about dogs, which was published in Letters from Sandy Hook — Newtown to the World, a collection of letters and essays compiled by Newtown resident Suzanne Davenpost, Sammy calls them “snuggly,” “cuddly companions.” She wrote, “They will be your friends forever.”

In the same book is a letter from both Jill and Samantha that explains the struggle of sharing their story. They said, “You cuddle up against the soft fur of this new friend … the comfort dogs were a place to come … for shelter … for unconditional caring … for sharing all the support you need.

“As a parent these sweet animals were the only reason you could get your child to go to school .. they help you to be brave,” the letter said. “The bond is unbreakable.”

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