By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – In 2012, Jessica Welp rescued a Border Collie named Shotgun from the Sulphur animal shelter. Soon after, Shotgun, now a certified therapy dog, began working with Sunbeam Family Services.
Welp is the administrator of Sunbeam’s Emergency Senior Shelter, the only shelter for homeless seniors in the state Oklahoma.
Together, Jessica and Shotgun visit hospitals, libraries, senior centers, support groups and Palomar, Oklahoma City’s Family Justice Center. Shotgun also uses his pet therapy skills at the Geriatric Institute, the Annual Caregiver Conference and the State Conference on Aging.
Shotgun received his pet therapy certification through A New Leash on Life. an organization that helps Oklahomans with disabilities and other needs live fuller lives through their various dog training programs.
A New Leash on Life, Inc. trains service dogs for people with disabilities and therapy dogs to comfort the elderly and motivate children learning to read or in therapy. Through the Pen Pal Prison program conducted at an Oklahoma correctional facility. shelter dogs are turned into well-mannered companion dogs who are then adopted by people in the community. Research shows that the inmates benefit as much as the dogs and their new owners.
Shotgun provides love and support to residents at Sunbeam’s Emergency Senior Shelter and to clients visiting the Sunbeam Counseling program. During the holidays, Shotgun can be seen wearing holiday attire, while receiving treats for special tricks he performs while at the Sunbeam facility.
Welp received her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. After working with seniors for several years in Sunbeam’s Caregiver Fundamentals Program, she earned her master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Oklahoma in 2018.
“People look forward to seeing Shotgun,” Welp said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a new resident transitioning from a traumatic situation into our shelter or a coworker on a Monday, Shotgun has a way of bringing smiles to people’s faces.”
There are numerous benefits to pet therapy, defined as an animal trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, people with learning difficulties, and stressful situations such as disaster areas.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness. They can also provide greater opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities.
According to PetMD, in addition to improving the lives of their owners, pets also strengthen relationships among humans.
“To many people, pets are family members – they bring us joy and dote on them,” Welp added. “Our pets love us unconditionally and we want to talk about them! So, they become conversation starters and many people can find common ground in sharing stories about pets they have or have had in the past.”
Sunbeam offers high-quality, affordable Counseling services for people of all ages who need help with life’s challenges. Clients learn ways to identify, cope and build strengths to overcome difficulties.
Last fiscal year, 99 homeless seniors aged 60 and older sought safety in the Emergency Senior Shelter, many of whom were without a family support system and had a limited monthly income. The shelter is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is supported by therapists from Sunbeam’s Counseling program.
Sunbeam’s staff consists of mental health professionals who provide traditional counseling services based on their professional training, experience and areas of expertise. Counselors are Licensed, License Eligible, or Master Level Interns who are supervised by Licensed Clinicians.
Sunbeam’s counselors are professionally trained in individual, marital, relationship and family therapies, which equips them with the experience and dedication to help individuals and families to find solutions that provide hope.
Through March 31, Sunbeam is asking the public to join them in “giving hope and restoring dignity” for Oklahoma’s seniors who are homeless through raising $65,000 to fund Sunbeam’s Emergency Senior Shelter. Donations will be matched up to $5,000, thanks to Randy Thurman CPA, CFP.
For more information, visit sunbeamfamilyservices.org/dignity or call 405-609-8994. To learn more about Sunbeam’s Emergency Senior Shelter, call 405-528-7721.