SURFSIDE, Fla. — In times of darkness, in the midst of tragedy, sometimes a small light shines brightest.
In the aftermath of the tragic condo collapse in Surfside that killed 98 people, aid from rescuers to charity poured in across the country.
Among the outpouring of aid were 19 canine/handler teams from HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, including Orange Park resident Susan Smalling and Mollie Mae, a Havanese/Yorkie mix comfort dog.
HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response is a nationwide non-profit organization that gives people going through a crisis to interact with an animal like Mollie Mae for comfort, socialization and mental stimulation.
“It was really a matter of seeing HOPE’s now 20-plus years of experience and the extensive training they provide," Smalling said. "As a retired Navy nurse, I value the emphasis that HOPE places on both human and canine safety, as well the educational requirements.”
Mollie Mae and the other dogs helped to console families who lost loved ones in the tragedy as well as the first responders who worked tirelessly recovering the dead.
“People don’t realize that the environmental and intense emotional factors present at the site of a disaster can take a toll on the comfort teams, especially at a site like Surfside, where over a 16-day period rotating canine teams interacted with more than 3,800 individuals,” said Valerie Wolford, HOPE Southeastern Regional Co-Manager. “For that reason we limited the number of days a team could work in Surfside, bringing in fresh teams to relieve them.”
Because of the summer heat and the conditions at the disaster site, Mollie Mae needed to be constantly monitored and given breaks to ensure her safety. However, through it all, Smalling said Mollie Mae was a "real trooper."
"When not providing support to the families and responders, HOPE canine handlers engaged in off-duty activities tailored to their individual dogs to help them de-stress,” HOPE board member and practicing veterinarian Heather Jenkins Brazzell explained. “These are exceptional dogs, but they are also our family members, and they need time to be dogs. So, whether they take a well-deserved nap or play ball, they need that downtime after taking on the vicarious trauma in their work as comfort dogs.”
HOPE AACR has seven canine-handler teams in North Florida and 35 other teams in the Southeast.