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State Honoree

Photo of State Honoree Melissa Newkirk

Melissa Newkirk

Nebraska

Melissa Newkirk, 17, of Omaha, Neb., a senior at Burke High School, leveraged her volunteer work with a national pet therapy organization to create a program that helps students at a local elementary school improve their literacy skills by having them read out loud to therapy dogs. Melissa was looking for an opportunity to combine her love of animals with a desire to work with people when she discovered Paws for Friendship. After becoming certified with this national organization, she and her dog began visiting a nearby hospital once a month to cheer up patients there.

At the time, Melissa was also volunteering at a local library, and noticed that fewer children were using the library's resources. "Kids seemed to have lost a love of reading," she said. That's when she hit upon the idea of using her therapy dog, Abbie, to help children practice their reading. Melissa recruited 12 fellow Paws for Friendship volunteers and their dogs to work with kids at an elementary school, arranged to hold reading sessions at the school on Monday nights, and asked the school's principal to identify struggling readers. She also collected donated books, stickers and dog-themed stamp sets to reward good attendance. Melissa's program helped 20 students improve their reading abilities during its first year, and is now well into year two.