Money, personnel and supplies have poured into Oklahoma from across the country after Monday's devastating tornado, but one Chicago-area church is sending a different kind of assistance — a team of golden retrievers.
Lutheran Church Charities, which runs the LCC K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, on Tuesday sent about six dogs and nine trained handlers from Illinois and Indiana to Oklahoma City. Two dogs and two handlers that worked in Joplin, Mo., after the 2011 tornado in that town will join them there.
The Addison-based nonprofit plans to make the dogs available for anyone affected by the tornado who wants to pet them and talk about their experience.
"They are good listeners and help people process loss and tragedy," said the charity's president, Tim Hetzner.
The dogs and their handlers were invited to help by Messiah Lutheran Church in Oklahoma City. The church plans to take the Illinois volunteers to The Children's Hospital at OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City.
The group will also visit shelters in Moore, Okla., where most of the tornado's damage occurred, and the University of Oklahoma's campus in Norman in an effort to help tornado victims and first responders directly, said Messiah Lutheran Church's senior pastor Mark Muenchow.
"People will still be fairly shellshocked," Muenchow said. "The dogs kind of take their focus off of it for a moment and allow them to kind of share."
Tiffany Manor, 41, has seen the positive effect the comfort dogs have on people who are going through natural disasters. In August she brought now 20-month-old Zeke to New Orleans to comfort victims of Hurricane Isaac.
Manor, who has helped in many disasters as a volunteer with her church, said she noticed a difference in the way people responded to her when she had a dog. Many would approach her without prompting and be more open when talking about their feelings when they did, Manor said.
"It was the most amazing thing I had ever experienced," she said.
The program started in 2008 after a handful of canine caretakers associated with Lutheran Church Charities traveled to Northern Illinois University with their dogs to help students after a gunman killed five people on the DeKalb campus.
Since then, the dogs have traveled across the country to help those affected by tragedies, including the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, the Boston Marathon bombings and Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey.
Now the program has more than 70 dogs in eight states.
Manor is looking forward to forming new relationships with those in Oklahoma.
"You just want to do whatever you can to fix things and make it right," she said. "It feels like a privilege to be there and be able to serve."