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‘Creating a feeling of compassion & care’

District steps up ‘whole child’ health measures

Meet Saffron, Kenowa Hills High School’s newest and furriest staff member, who contributes to district-wide mental health efforts

Kenowa Hills — Kenowa Hills High School’s newest and furriest staff member, 2-year-old Saffron, contributes to the district’s mental health efforts.

As a facility therapy dog trained by PAWS with a Cause, Saffron spends his days with students in counseling offices and hanging out with his handler, Freshman Academy ELA teacher Allie Hughes.

“You can’t look at him and not smile,” Hughes said. “Everyone laughs when he sighs loudly in the classroom, and we all need a laugh, even the adults.”

While walking him around the cafeteria, counselor Kayle Ogrodzinski said Saffron helps students stay focused in class and provides a paw to hold when they need to share their feelings.

“Students are battling anxiety and it can be uncomfortable to talk about,” she said. “Having Saffron in the room is such an easy way to ground them while having a conversation. (He) takes away some of the awkwardness.” 

Female teacher with black dog in front of Kenowa Hills sign
Freshman Academy ELA teacher Allie Hughes is the handler for Saffron, Kenowa Hills High School’s new therapy dog (courtesy)

Said senior Lance Lockwood: “He helps calm your anxiety if you’re giving a presentation in class and brings you comfort.”

The district used general funds to acquire Saffron and plans to fundraise throughout the year to cover ongoing costs. Schmidt’s Animal Hospital also donated all necessary veterinary care, including check-ups and medications. 

Superintendent Jerry Hopkins said his goal is to offer therapy dogs in all district buildings. 

“Saffron speaks a universal language of comfort and kindness,” Hopkins said. “As our students’ therapy dog, he is more than a pet; he’s a bridge to a more supportive environment where students can truly thrive.” 

Supporting the Whole Child

In addition to therapy dogs, Kenowa Hills is providing more mental health support in its buildings and through community partnerships.  

In 2021, Brooke Davis, the district’s director of diversity, equity and mental health services, established a partnership in 2021 with Pine Rest. The Student Assistance Program offers a 24/7 counseling hotline; three free online and in-person counseling visits; legal, financial and elder care consultation; leadership training; and critical incident response.

“Kenowa Hills Public Schools recognizes the importance of caring for the whole child and by extension, the whole family,” Davis said.

More mental health-related positions have been added to the buildings over the last few years to better serve the growing student population, Hopkins said. 

Kenowa Hills Middle School has two school counselors on staff. There are social workers at the high school, as well as at Alpine and Zinser elementaries, and child-life specialists at the high school, Zinser and Central elementaries.  

Every building in the district is also staffed with a school nurse to support students’ physical health.

“We want the culture of all of our buildings to create a feeling of compassion and care,” Hopkins said. “We know that is essential for our students’ academic and personal growth.”

Sign that reads "Mental Health is Important"
Kenowa Hills uses positive, green-colored messaging around the district to create a supportive culture around mental health awareness

Ogrodzinski said she noticed positive change at the high school, where students are excited to talk about mental health. 

“The culture has definitely shifted in recent years,” she said. “People are more understanding of (mental health) and they’re not embarrassed to talk about it.” 

Ogrodzinski added: “When a student’s mental health is doing well, you see it academically. … (And) even when they’re not doing well, they’re willing to talk about it.”   

Read more from Kenowa Hills: 
Spirit week promotes diversity and inclusion
District buildings promote mental health awareness

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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