Friendship found in furry companions

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

Max, a tiny Shih Tzu, fills a big void.

Each week, he bursts through Lucille Metzner's door, a flash of gray and white fur. He jumps into Metzner's lap and bathes her cheeks and ears with kisses.

Metzner, 70, lost her cat in May. The cat was like her child, she said. Metzner considered looking for another pet but didn't think she could care for it.

She met Max, and his owner Nancy Ginn, through Williamsburg Area Faith in Action's Visiting Canines program.

"This fills a void," said Metzner, while Max relaxed nearby. "It's wonderful, and I love it."

As it has since 2002, Williamsburg Area Faith in Action works to help local seniors live independently, through transportation, housekeeping, grocery shopping and other services. The Visiting Canines program is a recent addition, made possible in May by an anonymous donor to the Williamsburg Community Foundation, but Faith in Action has already seen the impact.

Executive director Rita Smith said it's hard to put the transformation into words.

"It's just amazing," Smith said. "Just making a huge difference to those seniors who are isolated, who are often confined to their home."

In partnership with the local Therapy Dogs International chapter, the program now has 12 therapy dogs, with each dog matched to at least one local senior.

Smith said the program serves seniors unable to own a pet due to health or financial reasons but, even more, therapy dogs benefit seniors with dementia and those who might be depressed, isolated or grieving. She mentioned a woman who found comfort in a visiting canine after her husband passed away.

"She said this is the first time she thinks she has smiled in over a year," Smith said.

The key is finding the right dog, and Cara Mandart is the matchmaker. As Faith in Action's In Home Services Coordinator, Mandart carefully pairs seniors with volunteers, in this case, both human and canine.

"We think it out in hopes that you'll connect, and if you do, it takes a life of its own and solidifies and grows," Mandart said.

When Mandart first met Metzner to discuss Faith in Action's services, Metzner revealed the recent losses of both her cat and her brother. Mandart mentioned the Visiting Canines program and immediately noticed a look in Metzner's eyes.

"There's something about the animal's presence that brings something to (her) life, and I wanted to fill that for (her)," Mandart said.

Max and Ginn, of Therapy Dog International Chapter 152, visit once a week for an hour, as they have since August. Ginn said the two sit and chat about their weeks, about life. Max, 8, starts the visits off in Metzner's lap, then he'll often stretch out on the floor nearby and nap.

"He's independent, but cuddly," Mandart said. Other dogs in the program, some larger, some more cuddly, might fit the needs of other seniors, but Mandart thought Max's personality a good fit for Metzner.

Turns out, she was right.

Metzner has found friendship not only with Max but also Ginn, and Ginn echoed the sentiment.

"I can be having a rotten day and come here, and by the time I leave, I feel wonderful. I feel great," Ginn said. "With everything I've got going on ... it just helps me out."

"We're helping each other, in a way," she said.

As Mandart had hoped, the friendship has taken on a life of its own.

"It's an avenue for my love," Metzner said. "Because I love Max, as well as Nancy."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Visiting Canines

If interested in participating or volunteering in the Visiting Canines program, contact Williamsburg Area Faith in Action at 757-258-5890. For more information, visit wfia.org.

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