Middle school special education teacher Stephanie Sanzo started bringing her service dog, Karma, to work with her during the 2013-2014 school year and watched students gravitate to her classroom to be close to the beloved Labrador retriever/golden retriever mix.
The dog’s effect on students inspired Sanzo and educational assistant Megan Ramage — who often discussed at work how to help students with developmental disabilities have happier, more purpose-driven lives — to start the nonprofit Pathways to Independence in Central Ohio.
Pathways to Independence, located in Columbus, Ohio, operates a dog daycare that teaches adults with developmental disabilities life and job skills. The dog daycare averages about 80 canine clients a day and currently has 16 unpaid adult “interns” with special needs, ages 18 to 65. The team helps the kennel’s staff groom and clean up after the dogs while interacting with the animals and their community.
“This is their happy place; this is where they can come every day and know that they’re going to be loved and supported and have fun,” Ramage, 59, who worked as a vet tech before spending 20 years working in special education, tells PEOPLE. “Every day is something new — every day is something fun.”
At the dog daycare, Sanzo, Ramage and the kennel’s staff and clients help teach the interns about communication, social skills and teamwork.
“Everything is a life lesson,” Sanzo, 38, says. “We don’t sit down and have class time, but everything that we do is, in some way, shape, or form, something to help them in the future.”
“Ultimately, we don’t want everyone to stay here. We want them to learn the skills and then use them to move further on,” Sanzo adds. “That’s the end goal.”
A couple of the dog daycare’s interns have joined the kennel’s official staff, and others have used what they learned to get jobs elsewhere — one at a veterinarian’s office, another at a different doggie daycare.
Marie Crawford, 62, has been taking her yellow Lab, Skully, to the daycare since it opened.
“They love him,” she says of the staff. “They’re so nice when you go in there. They make my day.”
For the past two years, her 31-year-old son, Peter, who has Down syndrome, has worked there two days a week.
“He was pretty pumped. He couldn’t wait to start working. He likes going to work,” Crawford adds. “He’s happy; he’s really happy to be there.”
It’s an enthusiasm that the daycare’s clients feel as well.
“The first time I brought my dog in, I left in tears because I thought it was so amazing and you could just feel so much love,” says Amy Weirick, whose 3-year-old dog, Scudder, is a regular.