Tragedy to therapy: Dog honors late graduate of high school

Scott Williams Racine Journal Times
Tuesday, April 6, 2021

UNION GROVE, Wis. (AP) — Union Grove High School’s newest resource for combatting student depression and anxiety is a furry little critter who specializes in unconditional love.

The school has acquired a therapy dog to keep on campus for comforting students who are dealing with mental health issues or who simply need to take a break from it all.

Bentley, as the new dog is known, will respond will affection and companionship in a way that can ease a person’s stress levels and defuse a potential breakdown. The emergence of therapy dogs in workplaces and other settings is based on scientific research that interaction with certain kinds of animals has therapeutic effects for people dealing with mental illness and other disorders or disabilities.

The dog’s arrival on campus stems, in part, from a tragedy that has impacted the Union Grove High School community deeply.

Gail Bentley, the school district’s financial officer, lost her 33-year-old son, Joel Bentley, to suicide last year. Joel was a 2005 graduate of Union Grove High School, and hundreds of people turned out for his funeral last September, the Racine Journal Times reported.

When school officials later decided to acquire a therapy dog, Gail Bentley gave her consent to naming the dog after her son and also to launching the new mental health effort on campus in his honor.

Since her son’s death, Bentley said, she has been surprised and disappointed to learn that mental illness is widespread and that few resources are available for children or adults in crisis.

“There’s just not enough help out there,” she said. “We need to try not to have a tragedy again.”

Dawn Van Ess, a Union Grove School Board member, felt so strongly about the matter that she personally donated the $1,400 needed to adopt Bentley from a breeder. Van Ess said she experienced mental health problems during her school years. But that was long before schools considered keeping a dog around to help students cope.

After Joel Bentley died, Van Ess said she felt a heightened sense of urgency to try new methods of helping the estimated 1,000 students on the Union Grove campus.

“I don’t want to see another parent have to go through what Gail had to go through,” she said.

Bentley arrived on campus in January as a 2-month-old puppy. Now at 30 pounds, the combination golden retriever-poodle, also known as a “goldendoodle,” is still growing and still undergoing training needed to qualify as an official therapy dog.

Katie Johnsen, a counselor at UGHS, said the school’s new four-legged staff member already has demonstrated an ability to instill calm and serenity within students who spend time with her.

Some students simply like dogs, but others have sought out Bentley because they were struggling for some reason. For those students, Johnsen said, a few minutes of snuggling or playtime with Bentley has meant a big difference.

“It’s a comfort. It’s a stress reliever,” Johnsen said. “They connect with her, and then they go on and have a good day.”

Johnsen also has agreed to serve as Bentley’s “foster mother,” taking the dog home with her every night and caring for Bentley as her own.

The school district officially owns Bentley and will provide for the dog’s food and other supplies. Officials are soliciting donations from anyone wanting to help support the school’s dog therapy program.

Already coming forward to assist is a veterinary clinic and a pet grooming business, both offering their services for free.

“We wanted to make Bentley more of a community project,” Principal Joel Adamczyk said.

UGHS already employs four counselors, and the district has hired a school psychologist and created a special committee to examine issues related to mental health on campus.

For those times, though, when a visit from Bentley is needed, the curly black-haired dog will be waiting in her spot in the school’s student services office, ready to spend quality time with an individual student or to visit a classroom.

After Van Ess announced that she was donating the money to purchase a therapy dog, when staff and students were asked to choose a name for the school’s new companion, they selected the name Bentley.

Gail Bentley gave her support to the initiative: She introduced the dog at its first school staff meeting.

Bentley said although she and her family are still recovering from their loss, she believes her son would approve of seeing Bentley, the therapy dog, on campus to help young people.

“We have to move on,” she said. “And this is a good thing.”