The Coastal Star

Dorinda Burroughs and her therapy dog, Ginny, work with children

in the after-school program at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach.

Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

    Dorinda Burroughs dedicated much of her career to improving children’s lives — working with students with learning, social, emotional and medical needs. Since retiring in 2015, she’s found a way to still make a difference, only now she’s doing it with a little help from a four-legged friend.
    On Wednesday afternoons, the Ocean Ridge woman and her therapy dog, Ginny, head to Paul’s Place — the after-school program of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach — where they spend an hour visiting with the children.
    At the beginning of the year, Burroughs contacted the church’s pastor and Kathy Fazio, the director of Paul’s Place, and asked if she and Ginny could volunteer.
    “When I approached them, they had never done anything like this before,” Burroughs said. “Some of the children were really frightened of dogs and had had bad experiences. So, I sit on the floor with them and we work through their fears or talk through the bad experiences, and usually by the end they’re petting Ginny and giving her hugs or brushing her.”
    Burroughs and Ginny, a 2-year-old golden retriever, usually see six to eight children per visit. Burroughs had the children read books about golden retrievers, and now she plans to have the children keep a journal about their experiences with Ginny.
    Paul’s Place, which was started in 2000, serves a Haitian-American population, with children ranging upward in age from 6 years old. All expenses are covered by fundraising, and volunteers keep expenses down.
    The children come Monday through Friday, 2:30 to 7 p.m. They have a snack, are tutored, and participate in activities such as music, art and sports. Before heading home, they have a hot dinner.
    On Wednesdays, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., they have fun with Burroughs and Ginny.
    “I think having them visit our children has taught them a whole new level of loving and caring for something,” said Fazio. “Ginny has become the mascot of this after-school program. We have a whole bulletin board now that’s dedicated to Ginny, with pictures from weekly visits, and research on golden retrievers.”
    Burroughs only recently started her therapy work with Ginny. But since April 2015, even before she had Ginny, it’s something Burroughs knew she wanted to do. Her granddaughter Reagan, who was 3½ at the time, was being treated in Washington, D.C., for a stage II cancerous tumor on her brain stem.
    One day, when Burroughs was at the hospital with Reagan (who just turned 5 and is cancer free), it was “Doggie Day.”
    “I saw firsthand how the dogs just knew instinctively how to cheer and comfort the children,” said Burroughs, 64. “I saw the children really light up, and forget about their situation, and that they were in the hospital.”
    At the time, she had a very old golden retriever that wasn’t a candidate to be a therapy dog, and eventually had to be put to sleep. So, Burroughs and her husband, Benton, began their search for a new dog. They adopted Ginny, a well-bred but neglected rescue dog, in December 2015, just before her first birthday. 
    “She was just a really sweet, active and fun-loving girl, so we knew right away when we saw her that it was the right thing to do,” said Burroughs.
    About the same time, Burroughs retired and was able to pursue her goal of forming a therapy dog team. She and Ginny received their Canine Good Citizens training and therapy dog training early last year from Fur Life K9 Training Academy in Jupiter Farms. They continued training in northern Virginia — where Burroughs and her husband live part of the year — and received their therapy dog certification from PAL (People. Animals. Love.) in Washington, D.C., this past fall. 
    Besides visiting nursing homes, memory care centers, and the Armed Forces Retirement Home, they have worked with PAWS for Reading, the after-school and library program of PAL, where children, often ESL students, can improve their reading skills by reading aloud to a nonjudgmental therapy dog.
    Burroughs also has taken and passed a pet handler’s course through Pet Partners, a nationwide group that certifies dogs for clinical settings. Her ultimate goal is to work with Ginny at Inova Children’s Hospital in Falls Church, Va.  where her desire to work with a therapy dog originated.
She expects to achieve that goal this summer or fall as Ginny gets more experienced and matures, and can take her exams for the Pet Partners certification.
    Helping children was always at the heart of Burroughs’ professional life. She worked for 15 years as a learning disabilities and behavior specialist with the Fairfax County public school system in northern Virginia.
    The last 20 years of her career, she worked as an educational psychologist and consultant at a large pediatric practice in the town of Fairfax, working with children who had medical needs, and with their families.
    Burroughs, who has four children and three grandchildren, looks forward to having her husband join her and Ginny in their volunteer work, once he retires.
    “There’s a great deal of science and research that shows that when sick children or adults can have positive interactions with dogs, they feel better,” said Burroughs. “It just gives them a lot of joy.”
— Marie Puleo

    Q. Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
    A. I grew up in a very small town in Mississippi after spending the first five years of my life in Michigan when my dad was in the Air Force. I attended Mississippi State University, and later the University of Virginia for graduate school. Growing up in a rural area, where everyone knew each other, with strong ties to church and community, certainly shaped me.

    Q. What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of? 
    A. I was a learning disabilities and behavior specialist. I was a consultant at a large pediatric practice. I had many professional joys working with special-needs students and their families, including piloting immersion programs in the late ’80s and ’90s that helped integrate these students into the general education population.
    At the pediatric practice, I evaluated students and wrote programs for them with a team of other specialists. I still communicate with many of my past students and their families. Knowing that I had an impact on their lives and seeing them succeed is truly a gift.
    One of the proudest periods I have had was when my husband, Benton, and I chaired a capital campaign to raise funds (during the recession) for a new Ronald McDonald House in Washington, D.C. We raised nearly $6 million to build the house debt-free. My husband did much of the legal work pro bono. I served on the Ronald McDonald House board for 16 years, the last two as board chair.

    Q. What advice do you have for a young person selecting a career today?
    A. It is really important to learn what you don’t want to do, just as much as it is knowing what you will love to do. Try out all sorts of jobs while you are young and develop diverse skill sets.

    Q. How did you choose to make your home in Ocean Ridge?
    A. We found Ocean Ridge in 2002 and are here seasonally, as well as off and on throughout the year. We love the small village atmosphere and the geographic location in Palm Beach County, as well as the convenience to Palm Beach International Airport. People are friendly and welcoming.

    Q. What is your favorite part about living in Ocean Ridge?
    A. The people we have as friends and those friends who walk dogs on Old Ocean Boulevard.

    Q. What music do you listen to when you need inspiration? When you want to relax?
    A. Classical and instrumental jazz.

    Q. Do you have favorite quotes that inspire your decisions?
    A. “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make,” from Jane Goodall. Also “To serve is beautiful, but only if it is done with joy and whole heart and a free mind,” from Pearl S. Buck.

    Q. Have you had mentors in your life?
    A. My parents and grandmothers. They all instilled the importance of education, family, faith and service.

    Q. If your life story were made into a movie, whom would you want to play you?
    A. Annette Bening, for her grace and serenity.

    Q.  Is there something about you that most people don’t know but may be interested to know?
    A. I love to try to imitate different accents. I have a very Southern accent and I once had a communications class whereby a professor made us take on different accents and personas. I also journal and write down funny things I hear when I’m out and about. I may compile it into a book. I also want to write a children’s book about Ginny and our therapy work.

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