On her own time as a volunteer, Sandi Martin leads the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.Ò) program for Intermountain Therapy Animals. Martin conceived and launched the program to address children’s literacy. She is a Friend of the Salt Lake City Library and a Board Member of Intermountain Therapy Animals. In combining her two passions, animals and a life long love of reading, Martin developed a literacy skills program for children utilizing certified therapy animals and their owners as literacy mentors. The program began in September 1999,and it offers a direct intervention to enhance children’s motivation to practice reading. Each child reads an animal related book to a therapy dog. When the child has completed ten books, he or she receives a ““pawtographed” book to keep which has been “signed” by the therapy dog.
The program was piloted in a program called, “ Dog Day Afternoons” at the Salt Lake City Library, where more than 100 children attended. It’s popularity quickly spread to all of the libraries in Salt Lake City and into Weber and Summit County. Public libraries across the country have also begun similar programs modeled after this one. Bennion Elementary School began a pilot R.E.A.D.Ò program with a small group of at risk students in April 2000 and it continues weekly. Martin and her founding R.E.A.D. partner, Olivia (adopted from the Salt Lake County Animal Shelter) volunteered weekly at Bennion. In the very successful pilot, all children increased their reading levels significantly and 2 children by almost 4 levels. The program continues at Bennion as well as in Clearfield, Utah at Holt Elementary.
Since the debut of R.E.A.D., more than 500 children have participated, many coming on Saturday afternoons to the public libraries to read with one of the Intermountain Therapy Animal R.E.A.DÒ teams. Others have been helped in public schools. A child at the library offered this observation: ““When I read, I stutter a little bit and when I read to the dog it didn’t make fun of me” stated Beatrice Flores. A child from Holt Elementary noted that the dogs “really listen” making reading more fun. With these kinds of observations, it is not surprising that the national media has noticed this Utah program. Martin has received more than 500 inquires from individuals across the country and as far away as South Africa and Israel requesting information about using therapy animals as literacy mentors or wondering how to start a program.
Since creating her idea for R.E.A.D.Ò, Martin has donated over 1500 hours to the community through this program. She has spent time educating the community about R.E.A.D., negotiating with organizations to introduce R.E.A.D. teams into their settings, working with over 30 other Intermountain Therapy Animals R.E.A.D. teams, orienting more teams, volunteering with her late Olivia and now her new R.E.A.D. companion, Zelda at Bennion Elementary School and the library, answering inquiries from across the country, negotiating with booksellers and publishers for book donations for the children in the programs, and assisting Intermountain Therapy Animals with R.E.A.D. fundraisers. She does all this while maintaining a very demanding full time position as a RN at University of Utah Hospital.