Reprinted from "Angel Animals" with permission of Penguin Putnam.  

A few years ago, I taught emotionally disturbed teens in a group home. My students, all in crisis situations, could be there for a day, a week, a month. Many of them required our lockup facility so they wouldn't harm themselves or others.

These very tough kids--some were prostitutes or drug users--often came directly from prison to my classroom. They were society's "throwaway" kids--youngsters without homes, street children bereft of families to love and care for them. They suffered from severe emotional problems. In the classroom, I could see their hearts were broken. Desperately, they needed to receive love. But more important, they needed to give it.

One summer, a friend mentioned an idea I thought would be a great program for my students. They could volunteer to help at our local animal shelter.

The plan was simple. We arranged that every Wednesday morning, I'd bring over my little crew, and they'd shovel waste, clean the runs, wash dog and cat bowls, and feed the animals.

Then came the risky part of the program.

After chores, the youngsters would earn the freedom to walk one of the dogs in the wooded area behind the shelter. Their walk together would be unsupervised.

Students often ran away from our group home Yet here I was handing them the freedom and responsibility of walking from the shelter into a wooded area where I couldn't even see them.

Could they handle it? Would any of them run away?

We began the project. Each week, the staff and I carefully went over the list of students who had met the requirements. All week, students worked hard to curb their tempters, be cooperative, and get their schoolwork completed so they could have a morning with the animals.

I emphasized to my students how much the animals needed their love and care. Soon, most of them were opening their hearts to the abused animals. They took pride in themselves and the kind of job they did because the animals needed them. As they served the animals, the youngsters were transforming before our eyes. We watched them learn to accept unconditional love from the dogs and cats.

I especially noticed the changes one day when a very special rabbit was brought into the shelter while they worked. The kids were horrified at the sight of this poor creature. He'd been dipped into a barrel of oil and left unable to move. The little rabbit could barely breathe. He was completely soaked, his eyes painfully filled with oil.

Suddenly, even the most self-centered troublemakers among our group were consumed with concern for the rabbit. They asked a thousand questions and hovered round the staff as they worked to save the animal. For the next week, they kept asking me to call to find out how the rabbit was doing.

These troubled kids saw that the animals were lonely and desperate for love and attention. For maybe the first time in their lives, someone said to them, "Can you help?" Never before had they been considered contributing members of society. Yet these kids begged to volunteer at the shelter.

As we had planned, my students walked the dogs, unsupervised, in the woods for up to half an hour. They could have easily escaped into the safety of the thick trees. I impressed on each of them my trust and respect that they'd bring back the animal in their care safely and on time.

Remarkably, I never lost a student or an animal.

The animals in the shelter and the students in my classroom showed me that when "throwaway" kids and "throwaway" animals give and receive love from each other, they form relationships and families that help them to survive. The world may have forgotten about, and not needed, my kids, but the animals sure did. These shining animals showed some very needy kids the way back home from heartbreak and abuse.

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