Pam Gaber just wanted to bring some light into the lives of at-risk children when she brought her dog, Gabriel, to visit the kids at Crisis Nursery in Phoenix while she was volunteering there back in 1999. His impact inspired her to start nonprofit Gabriel’s Angels, which connects therapy dogs with at-risk youth, going strong since 2000 and now serving 13,500 Valley kids a year. Gaber, a 57-year-old Scottsdale resident, ditched the corporate life to work full-time as CEO for Gabriel’s Angels, which now has 11 full-time employees and 175 therapy dog teams, as well as a therapy miniature horse, bunny and cat.
Gabriel’s Angels serves kids all over the state, from Tucson to Prescott, Sedona and Cottonwood, and is funded through individuals, corporate grants and events. The nonprofit hosts a breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore Friday, May 2, which is free to the public — find more information here. The organization is also partnering with Brad Jaffe, owner of Dogological dog teaching program, for his crowdfunding campaign for an upcoming dog training DVD — donate to the campaign, and a portion of the funds raised go toward Gabriel’s Angels.
Gaber, also the author of a memoir, Gabriel’s Angels: The Story of the Dog Who Inspired a Revolution, talked about how her passion for helping has turned into a new career. Scroll down to watch a video of her talking about her favorite reasons for living in the Valley, too.
What brought you to Arizona?
My corporate career. I was working for a pharmaceutical company in Florida before moving to Dallas, and then I was moved to Phoenix in 1989. I was born in New Jersey and grew up on the West coast of Florida.
How did Gabriel’s Angels begin?
We’ve been around since 2000. I was volunteering at Crisis Nursery, a safe haven for abused and neglected children, and I took my 1-year-old Weimaraner Gabriel to the Christmas party dressed as Rudolph. I thought it would be fun for the children to finally meet Gabe because I had told them stories about him.
That day, those kids were different. Instead of being angry and violent, they were soft and loving and kind, and would take his ear and put it on their cheeks. Kids who were crying in their rooms began to come out and smile and laugh.
There was a moment where I witnessed this gentle gray dog reaching children like no adult could. The executive director of Crisis Nursery said, “I don’t know what happened here today, but would you bring him back?” I felt like someone called my child a genius. If you’re a victim of anger or violence, you react to things with anger and violence. During that moment in time, these children were compassionate and loving and kind.
I remember when I got Gabriel in the car to leave, I looked at him in the rearview mirror and thought, “What did you just do?” He looked at me as if to say, “Silly human, I just do what dogs do best.” I thought I would join a group of people who would visit children in that situation with their dogs, and there wasn’t any. There were people visiting hospitals and nursing homes, but no one going to shelters that house or provide services to abused and neglected children here in Arizona. I felt like I could do something, or I could do nothing, and here we are 13 years later, serving 13,500 children a year.
We work with anything from after-school programs for at-risk youth, to Crisis Nursery and domestic violence and homeless shelters – wherever we can find these kids who, in the long run, need to learn behaviors such as compassion, empathy and trust, and how to self-regulate. They learn these behaviors through the unconditional love of the therapy dog, and then they have a learned behavior they can now show to each other.
All those behaviors are usually taught through a primary caretaker, but in these situations, the kids’ caretakers or parents are unwilling or unable to teach them these behaviors. Through the interactions with the therapy dog, everything we do is designed to bring the child in closer contact with the therapy dog, and that’s where the magic begins.
Why is working with at-risk kids such a passionate cause for you?
Child abuse, where kids are at risk, is heinous and unforgivable. I don’t want to live in a country where kids are being beat up by their parents, but I do live in a country where that happens. I’m passionate because I believe animals are our teachers in so many ways throughout our lifespans. There’s that special bond between children and animals that makes this program work.
Children start to trust and learn trust doesn’t always lead to disappointment. Working with these animals builds a foundation of empathy, where the kids see the animal’s needs and care enough to meet the needs. That’s huge, and it enhances their self-esteem.
Where does your love for dogs come from?
As a young girl growing up, when my mom said I was wrong, my dog Fluffy said I was right. When I got in trouble for doing something, he’d nuzzle me. Animals make us better people, and I also think the line of intelligence between humans and dogs is not that far apart. I think animals are more intuitive than we are, and they rely on us and become a part of our families.
What made you want to start a nonprofit?
I was in the corporate world and didn’t know what I was going to do next. I had been traveling and was only home three days a month, and I didn’t want to do that anymore. I left that career and realized the average teenager had more volunteer hours than I had, so I began to volunteer at Crisis Nursery, which is also when I adopted Gabriel. Gabriel’s Angels started on accident, but it continues on purpose. I had a moment in my life where I found out why I was born, and I was in tune with it.
Once I thought about what happened with Gabriel and the children, on January 1, 1999, I said, “This feels like a nonprofit.” I knew it wouldn’t be a windfall by any means, but it felt like it was the right thing to do. This is my chance to give back to this beautiful state of Arizona. When child abuse and neglect ends, I’ll close those doors. I know it’s not realistic, but that would be my dream.
What are your goals with Gabriel’s Angels?
We want to serve every child in Arizona who needs our services. Because of financial capacity, we can currently only serve about 70 percent of kids. I would need two more volunteer coordinators to work with 50 teams each.
Our larger goal is to be nationwide – it just takes time and resources, and I will never expand without thoughtfulness. We’re going to do it right when it comes to growth – we’re not going to grow and not be able to sustain it.
There are great people and great dogs nationally, and there are unfortunately abused children nationally, so the program piece of it could be plopped into any city tomorrow, and we could make it work. The problem is the resource engine – we need to raise the funds before opening up in a new city.
What do you look for in people who are part of the organization?
You have to be passionate for the mission, which can take people leaps and bounds ahead of someone who doesn’t have that passion. People have to believe therapy dogs can heal children in crisis.
From the board standpoint, it’s how well-connected are you, who is your circle of influence, and how many people can you introduce the organization to?
Who would be a good fit for volunteering?
Obviously, dog owners with dogs who would be good fits for therapy dogs are needed, but even if you don’t have a therapy dog, you can still be a helping hand to the therapy team. We also have event committees and the board of directors, and sometimes we need help with miscellaneous tasks, such as assembling physical products.
How can someone get involved on the therapy team side?
The dog must be evaluated by one of two national organizations: Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs Inc. They tell us the dogs and humans are registered. We are non-discriminatory – we have pit bulls, a Pomeranian, Rottweilers, Dobermans – a wide range of dogs.
Once the dog is registered, we make sure they’re a great fit for children, too, and that they know basic obedience commands. We also run volunteers through screening, which includes getting their fingerprints taken, and train them intensively on what it’s like to work with kids who are victims of violence.
What’s the typical visit from a team like for the children?
All the activities are designed to bring the children in closer contact with the animal, such as brushing their hair, giving it water, or “whisper time,” where the child can talk to the dog and tell it secrets. They listen to the dog’s heartbeat, brush its teeth, take it on walks. Older kids do a lot of basic obedience skills and training, and these activities lead to the children caring about something.
Two years ago, we launched an individual intervention program, where about 50 children a year will be referred through therapists to work one-on-one with a therapy dog.
Why would you encourage people to donate or volunteer?
Child abuse is heinous and unforgivable. This is about social change. We can, with the help of this community, change children’s behaviors and intervene in the cycle of violence. We should care about kids in the community, because some day, they’re going to be us. They’re going to be writers, they’re going to be business owners, they’re going to be police officers, and they’re going to be CEOs of charities. Unless we give them a chance, then shame on us.
Arizona ranks 47th in the nation in child well-being, which is awful. If we don’t help them, they’ll repeat the very cycles of violence they were victims of.
Additionally, animals who are in a home where there’s domestic abuse occurring have an 88 percent chance of being involved in the cycle of violence, as well. If we can teach that empathy now, we will stop children from being animal abusers. I had a teenage boy tell me once he’d never be an animal abuser again because he “got it.” We’re saving him, but we’re also saving animals, and that is a beautiful outcome we’ve learned over the years.
What inspired your book, Gabriel’s Angels: The Story of the Dog Who Inspired a Revolution, and what do you hope people take away from it?
I wrote it right after Gabriel passed away, and it was healing for me. It’s a little bit of the inspiration behind Gabriel’s Angels, as well as a little how-to for starting a nonprofit organization. It’s about Gabriel and my journey, which inspired the startup of this organization, and it’s a tear-jerker that talks about his life. For people who love animals, I think they’ll absolutely be able to relate to the bond Gabriel and I had.
Learn more about Dogological Dog Teaching Program owner Brad Jaffe here on Phoenix People.