They have bingo every Tuesday at So Others Might Eat, the charity headquartered off North Capitol Street that helps Washingtonians who are experiencing homelessness.
There’s Movie Day, too, and a gardening club. All those things are fun, but you know what might be best? The day that Tibby comes.
Tibby is a 3-year-old white German shepherd. And while a dog can’t find a homeless person a home, fix a hungry person a meal or give a job to someone who’s unemployed, she can put her head in your lap and, for a while at least, make you forget all those things.
A dog can make you feel human.
It’s a Thursday afternoon, and Tibby is holding court in a large multipurpose room on the second floor of SOME’s Isaiah House building on O Street NW. About a half-dozen SOME clients — men and women who have struggled in their lives — are seated in chairs along the edge.
Tibby — her snowy coat shaded yellow along her shoulders and back, a blue bandanna hanging from her collar — is alert to the possibility of treats.
“They’re helping me train her,” says Michelle E. Robinson, the president of Summit Therapy Animal Services of Herndon, Va., as she hands out doggy treats to Jesse, Lorrie, Ricardo and other Tibby fans.
Every other Thursday, Robinson brings a dog to SOME, either Tibby or her brother Chip. What happens on these visits isn’t technically therapy — the official term for it is “an animal-assisted activity” — but it sure looks therapeutic.
The SOME clients take turns interacting with Tibby. They ask Tibby to sit, to stay, to come, to chase a ball. Putting your hands on your shoulders means you want Tibby to climb into your lap. One man moves with Tibby to the center of the room and commands her to leap in the air toward a treat he holds in an outstretched hand. She eagerly complies.
“We try to have as many fun opportunities that are therapeutically based as possible,” says Janelle Mancuso, the therapist at Isaiah House.
Those fun groups — gardening, healthy eating, meditation, etc. — are in addition to more-traditional offerings, such as mental health counseling and anger management classes. There’s also a day room at Isaiah House where people without homes can spend time in a safe environment, out of the elements.
It’s all part of the SOME philosophy to meet basic human needs — food, housing, health — while also supporting more-complex ones: the desire for community, the need to receive, and bestow, empathy.
“That dog calms a lot of people down,” says one SOME client, waiting for his turn with Tibby. “It brings out the good side of people.”
Tibby is a bit of a teaching tool — there’s a not-so-subtle lesson in trust when a few of the SOME clients carefully walk over her as she’s stretched out on the floor — but mainly she’s there to be soft and warm and endlessly patient.
Robinson asks Gene Durham, a 69-year-old SOME client, how Tibby feels when he rewards her with a treat.
“It makes her feel good,” says Durham, who had dogs when he was young. “It makes me feel good, like we’ve got a connection.”
Later, Mancuso, the SOME therapist, tells me: “I think it reminds them that they’re human. They feel connected to another living thing. Animals generally soften us as humans. I see people come to the dog therapy group smile and laugh in ways that I have not seen sitting at a table in the day room.
“Not to sound corny, but it’s the literal sparkle in somebody’s eyes that have darkened. When they walk in the door, with the adversity that they’re facing, to see that spark come back is why I’m here.”
Tibby doesn’t know it, but it’s why she’s there, too.
So Others Might Eat is a partner in The Washington Post’s Helping Hand fundraising effort. There are just a little over three weeks left in this year’s campaign, which has a goal of raising $200,000 by Jan. 5.
Your tax-deductible donation to SOME will help the therapy programs that do so much good. To give online, visit posthelpinghand.com and click on “Donate.” To donate by mail, make a check payable to “So Others Might Eat” and send it to SOME, Attn: Helping Hand, 71 O St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20001.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.