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Cherry, the big, friendly volunteer dog

Who is smaller than a regular horse, but larger than a miniature one? Cherry the 8-year-old Saint Bernard. Cherry is 160 pounds of fluffy, soft fur and comes with a lot of drool that is well managed. She’s a rule follower, a calming presence and a great listener. Watch out for her cold nose as she loves to introduce herself to anyone and everyone!

Cherry visits The Gables care center residents at Johanna Shores in Arden Hills, MN. She would consider herself a perfect fit in the care center. She is aging, with arthritis in her hips and knees. But that isn’t stopping her and her owner Amy Nawrocki from spending their time with the residents every Friday morning. Amy, who is also the Volunteer Director at Johanna Shores, said, “Most people don’t know me and don’t even know I work here, but they sure do know Cherry.”

Amy works Monday through Thursday at Johanna Shores and on Friday she volunteers her time taking Cherry to see the residents. Amy joined the Johanna Shores staff in 2020 after her former job required her to work from home due to COVID. She was eager for a change and the chance to work with people again.

Starting a new job during COVID was hard, but when the workday was done, she came home to a hearty greeting from her great big dog. Cherry’s good nature and unconditional love always made Amy smile and helped melt away any burdens of the day. She said, “I wanted residents to have smiles and to bring joy back to their home.” One time Amy asked Cherry if she wanted to see the residents, and Cherry “shook her head and woofed, as if to say ‘yes.’” To top that cuteness overload, Cherry is such a regular at Johanna Shores that she even wears her own nametag. And to keep cool on hot days, a small fan hangs from her collar.

Cherry and Amy first began their visits in the fall of 2020 amidst the COVID pandemic. Starting at one household, Cherry knows her route around the Gables and Amy is just there to supervise. Cherry comes up to residents gathered in the community room, allows them to pet her and then heads down the hallways. When Amy tells Cherry it’s ok to go in a room, she enters and sits next to the resident. With her head at about elbow height, Cherry looks up with big brown eyes, awaiting the gift of touch.

Cherry is a patient, giant fluff ball, sitting quietly while a resident strokes her soft, silky fur. Once Cherry meets her self-determined time limit, she moves on to the next person. When everyone in the household has been seen, it’s time to head on. Some residents visit with her longer than others, but the love she spreads to everyone is equal. When Cherry is done, she walks right back to Amy’s car. Amy joked that, after visits, Cherry “sleeps for the next two days.”

Cherry loves everyone, and most people like her. Staff and residents look forward to her visits and miss Cherry and Amy when they take a rare day off. Recently, when the two took off the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, “I heard all about it from Cherry and residents,” Amy recalled. While residents and staff love Cherry, she only works one day a week, never more, because, at her age, that’s about all she can do.  

The outcomes of seeing Cherry

Cherry is making a big impact on the residents. Amy tells of a resident in memory care who was withdrawn and rarely talked. However, when Cherry came to visit, the resident came alive. The staff knew that she loves dogs, but they, too, had never seen her so engaged. Cherry came right up to her and just sat there waiting to be pet. The resident beamed with a smile as she stroked Cherry’s basketball-sized head. That reaction is why Amy brings Cherry.

Amy says the best thing about their visits is seeing how happy it makes both Cherry and the residents. “The residents have the biggest smiles on their faces when they see Cherry,” she said. One resident gets to see Cherry last because she “co-owns” the dog, or so she told her family. Cherry (with Amy’s help) even made her a birthday card stamped with her paw prints! Cherry is family to everyone at Johanna Shores.

Volunteering to visit with a dog is easier than expected. Amy said that all dog owners must do is bring the dog in and make sure it can pass a test to assess its manner and attitude. After passing, they are in the clear to volunteer. Usually, dogs are scheduled to visit only once a week at Johanna Shores because of the high volume of dog visitors.

If you are interested in volunteering with your dog, contact your local PHS community to see if your dog qualifies. We thank Cherry and Amy and all the pet-owner volunteer teams who bring countless smiles to residents and, like Cherry, endless tail-wags.

To see Cherry at work as a volunteer, visit the Johanna Shores Facebook page.

“We Will” is a series that spotlights inspiring examples of teamwork at PHS. With God’s blessing, We Will work together to build a better, brighter future for the older adults we serve.

There are many opportunities for individuals, families, or congregations to get involved in our ministry. For ideas and ways to volunteer, click here or email mailto:[email protected]

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