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Thursday December 2nd

UNC Medical School PAWS Program in danger of being defunded

<p>Max, who was&nbsp;trained by Helping PAWS, plays in his home. Photo courtesy&nbsp;Sunny Westerman.</p>
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Max, who was trained by Helping PAWS, plays in his home. Photo courtesy Sunny Westerman.

UNC PAWS, a dog-training therapy program that helps clients with mental health disorders, might be suspended unless their fundraising campaign is successful. 

John Gilmore, a UNC School of Medicine professor, said that PAWS had been funded by grants and donations that can't cover the program's expenses anymore.

“PAWS is part of the (Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health's) larger philosophy of care — that people with serious mental illness need a continuum of care to recover from their illness — that includes more traditional, office-based psychiatrist and therapy visits, medications, community-based services, such as Assertive Community Treatment teams,” Gilmore stated. “PAWS and our other recovery programs help people with serious mental illness rebuild their lives, do something meaningful and become part of the larger community again."

Thava Mahadevan, the director of recovery and rehabilitation programs, said that they have started fundraising campaigns in order to support the program.

“Many volunteers and community members are stepping up to assist the program by engaging in a fundraising campaign, and we are very hopeful that with student and community support, the program will continue,” Mahadevan stated.

Sunny Westerman, the PAWS program coordinator, said clients need more than therapy and medication, and that their program provides the housing and friends they really need.

“My favorite thing about PAWS is the simplicity of the bond between our clients and the dogs; it is such a mutually beneficial relationship," Westerman said. "The dog receives love and a forever home and our clients receive a companionship as well as unconditional love of their dog.”

Mahadevan said PAWS used an unconventional but effective approach to remedy mental illnesses.

“This program is a unique innovative approach to engaging and assisting people with mental illness in our community,” Mahadevan said. “It involves community members, schools and seniors to help harness the power of man’s best friend in treating mental illness in our community.”

Westerman said it's important for the clients because it provides them with therapeutic friends. 

“A lot of our clients are socially isolated or have trouble communicating with people, and a dog is such a benign companion, they don’t ask for anything of the person except to feed it and love it," Westerman said. "Pairing our clients with a dog is another opportunity to provide them with social interaction and exercise.”

Westerman said it was the most rewarding job she's ever had and that it's made her very thankful to have it as her occupation. 

“I feel like it is a vocation and that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, which is combining my love of supporting people and rescuing animals,” said Westerman. “I love dogs and there are so many who need homes, so to play a small part in making that happen makes me feel very honored.”

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