Cynthia Zeldin (left) allows Global Village project student Mu Doe (right) (last name withheld), 15, to pet Lily, a registered therapy dog, during their reading time at the Global Village Project school in Decatur. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Lily Tova the therapy dog comforts refugee girls in Decatur

Havanese pup listens to Global Village Project students reading

Lily Tova barked excitedly and shook her gray pom-pom-like tail when she arrived for her most recent visit at the Global Village Project, a middle school for refugee girls in Decatur.

A black and white six-year-old Havanese, Lily Tova — her last name means “good” in Hebrew — was eager to see her pals. She visits them every other Friday, putting them at ease with her nonjudgmental approach as they take on what can be a frustrating challenge: Reading aloud in English.

Many of the girls are from countries where canines are regarded warily or even shunned. Lily helps them become more comfortable with pups. A trained therapy dog who has visited nursing home patients, she calms the girls, all of whom have endured trauma fleeing persecution in their home countries.

The nonprofit, tuition-free school teaches girls with gaps in their education. Ranging in age from 11-18, they come from Southeast Asia, Eastern and Central Africa and the Middle East. Forty are enrolled this year. They stay for two or three years before moving on to high school.

During her recent day at the school, Lily visited four of them. The school asked that the girls’ last names not be published to protect their privacy.

First up was Shukrani, 13, who came from a refugee camp in Tanzania. The sight of Lily drew a broad smile from her. Shukrani plopped down in a purple beanbag seat, petted Lily and read to her from “Taking Care of a Bird.”

Joining them was Lily’s owner, Cindy Zeldin, 79, of Atlanta, who has extensive experience as a psychotherapist and who works as a life coach treating children with anxiety. Zeldin calls her volunteer work at the school an expression of her Jewish faith.

“You read so well,” Zeldin told Shukrani. “My goodness, I’m impressed.”

Shukrani: “When I first came here. I didn’t know how to read, but now my reading level is going higher.” The key, Shukrani explained, is practice. “I read every day.”

Zeldin hugged Shukrani and gave her a sticker that declares: “Reading is Fun!”

Next came Suzana, 16, of Eritrea. She brought a book about Ana Dodson, a humanitarian worker from Peru. Zeldin helped Suzana understand the meaning of the word “disaster” and the difference between the noun and verb forms of “lives.”

“You are very special just because you are who you are,” Zeldin told Suzana.

Mu Doe, 15, of Thailand, was next with a book, “Be Kind,” by Pat Zietlow Miller. She got tripped up on the word “laughed,” so Zeldin helped her pronounce it. Then she explained the meaning of the word “smock.” Mu Doe was hesitant with Lily.

“Not every dog is like Lily,” Zeldin told her. “You don’t want to just go pet every single dog, right? You have to be careful. Sometimes you might ask the person, ‘What do you think? Am I allowed to pet your dog? Or am I not?’”

“She is kind and nice,” Mu Doe said of Lily.

Lily’s last visitor of the day was Fatima, 14, of Syria. Earlier this year, Fatima wouldn’t enter the same room with Lily. But she couldn’t get enough of Lily during her most recent visit. Setting aside “Freckle Juice” by Judy Blume, Fatima crawled on the floor with the pup and gazed lovingly at her.

“Oh my God, she is so friendly,” Fatima said. “You are my friend. You are my best friend. She is so nice.”

Zeldin: “She loves you. She remembers when you were really afraid. And now look at you.”

“I love you,” Fatima told Lily. “She is so delightful.”

Fatima, who now wants her own dog and a cat, will attend Druid Hills High School next year.

“I am ready. I am so excited to be there.”

Their job done, Zeldin slipped with Lily into a library down the hall for a break. Lily took a sip of water from a Styrofoam bowl, sprawled on the floor and contentedly fell fast asleep.

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