MAYFLOWER — The three golden retrievers took their places in different corners of a third-grade classroom at Mayflower Elementary School on Monday, immediately drawing small groups of excited students to their sides.
Some brushed their hands against the dogs' soft fur coats. Others marveled while one dog rolled onto his belly and let a boy shake his paw. And most listened attentively while the handlers explained the comfort dogs had come to spend time with the students in the aftermath of last week's devastating tornado.
Jason Glaskey, a 39-year-old handler for one of the dogs, Jackson, said the dogs are trained to be calm and still to help forge "special connections" with people, especially those who have undergone traumatic events like the April 27 tornado.
"Some people, especially children after the storm, a lot of times kids open up and talk to the dogs about what happened to them," Glaskey said. "And some people are smiling for the very first time. It really helps people to relieve some of their stress and just to share what they've gone through. And that helps them to move forward in their recovery."
And so it was Monday at the elementary school, where dozens of students lost their homes in the EF4 tornado that carved a path of destruction through Pulaski, Faulkner and White counties, killing 15 people. In Mayflower and the also hard-hit Vilonia, Monday was the first day back at school more than a week after the tornado tore through.
The children wanted to know the dogs' names, their birthdays, where they were from and why they were so calm. But it wasn't long before the conversation shifted to the tornado and the destruction it left behind.
"My papa's whole entire roof picked up and then came down and just crashed on top of the tub," one little girl said, her hands stroking Jackson's back leg while she spoke.
"Windows broke, boards flown," another girl said. "I was in the bathtub. Before that, I was in the living room with earplugs on and I was like, 'Whoa.'"
The golden retrievers are deployed to various disasters and tragedies through Lutheran Church Charities, a national ministry that trains them through its churches around the country.
Tim Hetzner, the group's president, was on hand Monday while the three dogs visited classrooms at the school. He said the dogs' special training helps them bring "mercy and compassion to people at times of crisis," encouraging them to open up.
"People begin to talk about what happened," he said. "And when you can talk about and process what took place, it helps you in that healing process ... Some kids, they just clam up and don't talk to anybody. And it's not uncommon for them to want to talk to the dog first."
The K9s on hand Monday in Mayflower have seen their share of sad and tragic scenes. Glaskey, a youth minister at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Joplin, Mo., took Jackson to Moore, Okla., after the deadly tornado there last year and to Newtown, Conn., after the school shooting there in 2012.
He became a comfort dog handler after the national group responded to the 2011 tornado in Joplin and he saw first hand what good the golden retrievers can do.
"Whenever people need us, we like to go if we can," Glaskey said. "We're always ready to deploy. We try to keep the van gassed up and try to keep our crew trained up and ready when we're asked to go. We're fortunate that we're able to do that."
Candie Watts, principal at Mayflower Elementary, said the school was pleased to be back in session with the dogs, counselors and other resources — including hot meals and hygiene items — in place to help students deal with a difficult time in their lives.
"We have 58 students who are considered homeless due to loss of their house completely," Watts said. "Most every student in this building is affected in some way ... [It] feels pretty good to know we see their faces, they're here and we can directly see what their needs are."