Sometimes things that slither, scamper and prance around offer humans lessons that can be life changing or sustaining.
That is certainly the case for Aretha Crout, founder and program director of a non-profit youth educational program called Pawsabilities.
". . . I grew up in a housing project, and I was reflecting on my history. I had a dysfunctional family with the things happening that go on in a lot of homes in the inner city. Animals were my savior. I attribute my sanity and ticket out of the inner city to animals," explained Crout who grew up with the typical dog, cat and fish in her home and was constantly catching caterpillars that transformed into butterflies and tadpoles that became frogs.
Not only did she have a special connection with animals that fed her soul but Crout said she learned many things from them as well.
"I learned lessons of fairness, unconditional love and planning. For example, the (planning) lessons came from animals that go into hibernation or store up for the winter; or from cats about to have kittens. She will look for a safe place out of traffic, two to three weeks before she begins the birth process. She will stop her delivery if that place isn't right," Crout said.
The program founder has incorporated these lessons and others into Pawsabilities, an afterschool program targeting at-risk students at Markham Middle school, Locke High and the Watts/Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club. She is also in the process of connecting with organizations that serve the developmentally disabled to work particularly with those having autism or cerebral palsy.
Pawsabilities grew out of a need Crout had to change career directions. After training as a zookeeper, a L.A. city hiring freeze locked her out. She ended up working in corporate America for almost seven years.
"I did quite well, but I was miserable," said the animal lover of her job in commercial insurance. She and her fiancé Herb Trawick began to discuss ideas for a career change.
"He noticed how I not just had a connection and way with animals, but that I had a way of teaching people and working with people and animals," Crout remembered.
That realization put the two on a discovery path and eventually the idea for Pawsabilities was born. But Clout said she wanted more than a biological educational program. She wanted to give back and help young people who were like her.
That led to the decision to incorporate writing, human relations, math, career education and other academics into an animal husbandry program to "help their spirits as much as you help their minds."
Crout has definitely seen the results she sought.
"I had kids who were too embarrassed to put pen to paper because they knew their writing skills were sorely lacking or non existent. Now 12-weeks later they're writing two and three sentence paragraphs," said Crout. And then there is the barrier-breaking ability she used on the Locke students, who self-segregated into all-African American and all-Hispanic groups. Crout observed that for the first weeks, then began to intermix the students and offer incentives that rewarded them for working together.
With a first successful outing of Pawsabilities as a paid program under her belt, Crout is preparing for a summer session at the Watts/Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club. She will visit the facility twice a week, take her animals in, and periodically throughout the two-month program, take students on field trips to places like the race track and the Long Beach Aquarium.
In the process, Crout knows she will expand young people's views of the world around them and offer possibilities they may have never considered.
For more information on Pawsabilities, contact Crout at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (818) 590-3489.