UNC’s School of Medicine has turned to crowdfunding to save a program that trains shelter puppies to become support dogs for people with mental illnesses
The alternative, if the fund drive doesn’t meet its $50,000 goal by the end of June, is to suspend the UNC PAWS program, officials with the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health say.
“Over the last few years our budgets have just gotten tighter and tighter,” said John Gilmore, the center’s director and a professor of psychiatry at UNC. “Our expenses have gone up and the reimbursements for what we do have gone down. We’re just being squeezed a little bit, and we had to make a hard choice.”
The hope is that it’s “maybe a bit easier to raise money” for PAWS than it might be for some of the center’s other support programs “because there are a lot of dog people out there,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore said $50,000 will cover basic expenses and the annual salary of the PAWS program’s coordinator.
The Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health supplies an assortment of services to area mental-health agencies, including a clinic in Carr Mill Mall and “community treatment teams” in Chatham and Wake counties. All told, it has about a $9 million annual budget and relies on grants and insurance reimbursements of various sorts to make ends meet.
It started UNC PAWS in 2014.
The basic idea is to take shelter puppies, golden or Labrador retrievers usually, and give them some basic training and socialization from center clients at The Farm at Penny Lane in northern Chatham County. From there, they go a prison in Franklin County where inmates teach them to respond to service-dog commands. Once fully trained, they’re paired with a center client.
Gilmore said that while the center might not necessarily have any quantitative data on the program’s benefits to clients, “we know everyone likes it a lot.”
For people with mental illnesses, the benefit aside from simply “having a companion” is that “the training and socialization of the animals is a way for our clients to get out of the house, get out in the community, meet people, and feel comfortable and feel part of the community,” he said.
Did you know?
Research shows that individuals who interact with dogs experience greater health benefits such as lower heart and blood pressure rates.