GREENFIELD — Nickie Scott looked around the classroom with glee as the kindergartners ripped cheerful paper from their packages, discovering selections to add to their bookshelves.
Scott loves all the children she visits through her literacy organization, but at this time of year, the kindergartners are her favorites, because when she tells them their canine reading companions had a paw in wrapping their presents, they believe her.
This year, Scott, founder of canine-assisted reading program Bentley’s Buddies and Friends, has provided some 755 new or gently used books to little readers, one for every child who participated in the nonprofit’s program in 2017.
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The organization, which pairs young readers lacking confidence with a patient pup listener, received a donation of new books from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. in addition to a $1,000 grant from the Hancock Regional Hospital Foundation, which Scott and other volunteers used to purchase new books from Scholastic Corp. and gently used books from Half Price Books, she said.
The nonprofit organization, named for Scott’s Great Pyrenees, Bentley, has come a long way since the first year she gave books to all her students four years ago, she said. That first year, Bentley’s Buddies operated out of Scott’s Greenfield home, and all of the books she provided were donated by members of the community, she said. She had to rent a storage unit for the books donated to her fledgling organization, she recalled.
This year, a local Girl Scout troop and about 20 high school students volunteered their time to wrap the books, filling the hallway outside the Bentley’s Buddies and Friends office at 1220 W. Main St., where the organization made its home last year.
The organization’s reach has grown as well, with 35 volunteers and dogs making 40 visits to county schools every week, Scott said.
The arrival of the furry friends and their handlers is always met with excitement by the students. Bentley’s Buddies board member Jim Matthews has seen those little eyes light up, firsthand.
The board member and longtime volunteer with the organization loves the transformation he has seen in students’ confidence throughout the school year — and the bond that grows between the children and the dogs.
Matthews, who brings his beagle (coincidentally also named Bentley) to the first-grade classroom at Weston Elementary School, got to see the students receive their books last week.
“They were just extremely happy to get them,” he said. “They loved the idea of getting a book of their own that wasn’t school-related.”
Making a space for reluctant readers to come and spend time with the dogs, a non-judgmental audience, is an important part of Scott’s mission, she said. She is working with a team of community leaders taking part in Leadership Hancock County’s 2017-2018 class to come up with a redecoration plan to make the Bentley’s Buddies office even more kid-friendly for the youngsters who come and read to the pups after school or during school holidays.
Stacy Blanton’s 8-year-old daughter, Lucy, has been a member of Bentley’s Buddies for about a year now and loves her weekly appointment to read to dogs.
Scott and the dogs are always giving Lucy little trinkets that help get her excited about reading, Stacy said.
Receiving a new book “from the dogs” makes Lucy excited about reading, Stacy said, a stark contrast from last year, when her daughter wasn’t apt to reach for a book.
Now Lucy can read to her dogs at home, too, an idea her family had never considered.
Youngsters who regularly read with the organization’s dogs, which are trained to sit quietly, often show improvement in their grades, in reading and other subjects, Scott said.
Allison Trinkle and her 11-year-old daughter, Hailee, first met Scott and Bentley at Christmastime last year. Since then, Hailee has been reading with Bentley twice a week after school.
Hailee used to hate reading, her mother said. Letters on the page never held her attention well, and her grades suffered as a result, Trinkle said.
But in the year Hailee has worked with Bentley, things have gotten better. Her reading test scores are up, and she’s never without a book these days.
She even added books to her Christmas list this year, asking her mom to grow her library so she can keep up with her reading.
The book from Bentley will only help in that goal, Trinkle said.
Promoting early childhood literacy is a year-long effort, but in Scott’s eyes, the holiday season provides a perfect opportunity to encourage children to read.
“Part of my mission is to make sure every child has a book at Christmastime,” she said. “It’s so great to see the excitement of the kiddos.”