The arrival of Pongo, our facility dog, ushered in a new era of animal-assisted intervention at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. The celebration surrounding our four-legged coworker has quieted down, but Vice President of Youth Programs Tom Gilardi doesn’t see this as a lack of enthusiasm. Instead, he views it as evidence of Pongo’s true purpose: becoming part of our routine.

“Pongo is like the wallpaper. He blends right in,” said Tom, who also serves as Pongo’s facilitator. “He’s like the family dog now. Which is what we want.”

Regardless of his familiarity around the Home, Pongo is as popular as the day he set paw through our front door. Kids light up whenever they see Pongo. Naturally, this happiness makes them more relaxed when they spend time with him or pet him. This bodes well for Tom, who uses Pongo to this advantage.

“Pongo just may be a touch piece when the kids and I are talking,” he said. “It’s not like he’s the center of attention – it’s more like he’s a conduit for getting the kids to open up. I feel like I know the kids much more intimately now because of Pongo.”

But it’s not just the kids who Tom is getting to know better.

“Pongo has definitely helped me connect with the youth care workers,” he said. “One of the most important parts of my job is staying connected to that front-line staff. Pongo has really helped grease those relationships.”

Such kinships have kept Tom and Pongo in high demand. Tom is equal parts former linebacker and teddy bear. Kids gravitate toward his fatherly vibe and boisterous energy. With his furry sidekick, he’s part of a dynamic duo of therapeutic care.

One of our younger boys recently experienced an upsetting situation at school. He struggled to process the circumstances, so Tom and Pongo intervened.

“He got right down on the ground and was petting Pongo, and just talked through the whole situation,” Tom said. “This is exactly what we wanted.”

Through this canine connection, the boy is also forming a more important relationship.

“He wants to spend more time with Pongo, but really, he wants to spend time with me, as a father figure or grandfather figure,” said Tom. “That’s invaluable.”

This connection offers Tom such a clear and direct line of communication with not only kids, but the residential programs he oversees.

“That’s good for me because, as an administrator, I get to see what’s working, and what’s not working,” he said. “That means this information isn’t getting filtered by three or four layers of people.”

Now, as springtime beckons, even more layers are being shed, like winter coats.

“Pongo and I were both ready for the weather to break, said Tom. “The winter is a bit of a grind, because Pongo has to stay on his leash in nearby parks. But now that the snow has melted, we’re getting back on our outdoor thing down at the Walsh Campus.”

Tom and Pongo typically spend every Thursday at the Walsh Girls Campus, which includes a large enclosed backyard where Pongo can freely run off-leash and play in the grass.

“Pongo loves running around the Girls Campus,” Tom said. “There’s so much for him to explore. And the girls love him.”

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  1. Gin E. Stott says:

    Yes, I truly believe God has given us the gift of dogs. I feel every boy and girl needs to feel the warmth, unconditional love, and care a dog can bring into a home and heart.

  2. Janice A. Strohsnitter says:

    I am so happy Mercy Home got a therapy dog!! Pongo will be a great
    asset to the children!! My 36 yr.old son has “ASPERGERS” on the
    Autism Spectrum. He lives in a group home with 6 other men. They
    have pet therapy once a week and it is very helpful to the guy’s at the
    We adopted a dog 1 year ago who licked my son and she has a cross on
    her chest. “Devine Intervention” for our cute “Lucy” who was a great fit from day 1. Such a blessing for us. Pogo will be a blessing also!!
    Enjoy spring walks with Pongo!!
    Love always,
    Janice A. Strohsnitter

  3. Barbara D. Smart says:

    I have often wondered why you did not have a dog there at Mercy Home and am so glad you finally have Pongo. My daughter and son in law have their second therapy dog. Jesse, a Golden Retriever lived to be almost 14 and impacted the lives of many adults and children and now Calle-a Golden- is doing the same thing! When will the girls home be getting their very own dog–soon, I hope.

  4. Carol Johnston says:

    I’m new to supporting mercy home. These heartwarming stories made me so glad I picked Mercy Home as one to support as I get many requests in the mail and I need to pick and choose.

  5. Georgeanne Young says:

    What a great idea! Dogs / pets can be such a comfort, and I’m sure these children who have gone through so much need that comfort. Sometimes I think they (dogs) are “angels in disguise.” May our Lord continue to bless your work . . .

  6. Fran Vlasses says:

    Tom and Pongo

    So glad to hear that all is well and you are doing such good work at Mercy Home!

    Fran Vlasses
    Puppyraiser for Poppet and Tayla

  7. Donene M. Harrison says:

    How wonderful to have Pongo at Mercy Home. I can see by the photo’s that he is truly loved by the children!

  8. Joan Dvorak says:

    I enjoy reading the stories of how Pongo has helped many of the children going through difficult times in their early lives. What a blessing it is to have Tom also working with these children…a great duo. Mercy Home is one of my favorite charities…

  9. Caroline Spiotto says:

    As I read the most recent post concerning Pongo, my eyes filled with tears of happiness. I am a devoted animal lover and know from personal experience how therapy dogs can really help people struggling through abuse and other issues. I am so glad I am a guardian angel to Mercy Home. Father Scott sends me a monthly letter and report about all the wonderful changes taking place at Mercy Home with the support of people who regularly contribute.

    I hope the girls get their own therapy dog soon.



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