Nature Over Noise

“Unleashing Happiness” a monthly blog by Karen Lee Stevens

Director of Wellness Programs, Karen Lee Stevens tackles topics related to mental health and the human-animal bond, along with a healthy dose of humor (because let’s face it, sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying!).

Nature Over Noise Title Page

BLOG POST #11 – Nature Over Noise

July 10, 2024

by KAREN LEE STEVENS

Close your eyes and imagine this: Soft, muted colors surround you, a calming contrast to the non-stop noise of the city. The gentle curves of a labyrinth guide your path, and you are treated to the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze and songbirds cheerfully chirping in the surrounding trees. A decorative water fountain trickles nearby, its melody harmonizing with the wind chimes tinkling overhead. Now, breathe deeply and take in the fragrant scent of lavender and lilies.

Sand Labyrinth Photo

This isn’t a dream; it’s a Quiet Garden, a haven designed for peaceful reflection amidst everyday life. These sanctuaries for the senses are becoming so popular, there’s actually a worldwide movement afoot called (appropriately enough) the Quiet Garden Movement.

Rev. Philip Roderick, who founded the Quiet Garden Movement, defies the stereotype of a typical reverend. This fellow is a theologian, educator, writer, and accomplished drummer – all with a fondness for peace and quiet. Inspired by his Welsh upbringing and a love of nature’s hush, Rev. Roderick started the Quiet Garden Movement in 1992. Its mission? To transform any garden, home, or even a bustling hospital into an oasis of reflection, relaxation, and, well, quiet. Think of it as a place where noise goes on vacation.

Garden with bench photo
I had the pleasure of stumbling upon a Quiet Garden during a recent weekend getaway to the seaside town of Cambria, California. It was here, among the plethora of pine trees, that nature was on full display as sunbeams tiptoed through the leaves, dappling the ground in a playful game of hide-and-seek. A gentle breeze sighed through the wind chimes, creating a melody so delightful it brought a smile to my face. Butterflies, with wings resembling stained glass, flitted past like confetti. A chubby bumblebee, lost in a world of pollen-dusted dreams, bumbled along, bumping into roses (and offering a sleepy apology, if bumblebees could apologize).
Garden Art Photo
Here in the garden, worries melted away faster than ice cream on a hot summer day.  I found myself giggling for no reason, except maybe because a ladybug had just landed on my nose, mistaking it for a particularly sweet sunflower. It seemed that even the resident earthworms were silently inching their way to wherever it is earthworms go to avoid causing any disruptive vibrations.

For a few precious moments, the Quiet Garden allowed me to turn down the volume of my life and sink into the stillness. As I basked in this magical sliver of serenity, I couldn’t help but wonder: What if everyone had regular access to a Quiet Garden? Would the frantic pace of our daily lives slow down? Would we treat each other with more kindness? Would we be happier and healthier? What would that world look like?

Garden Pond Photo

While I don’t have all the answers, I imagine that in a world where we spoke softly rather than shouted, where we soaked up the sunshine instead of the news, and where we connected with our children instead of scrolling through social media, the only pressure we might feel is from the urge to take a long nap amongst the lilies.

Dog smiling on the grass

Have you experienced the wonders of a Quiet Garden? Share your stories by emailing Karen at karen@therapydogssb.org.

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“Unleashing Happiness” a monthly blog by Karen Lee Stevens

Founder and Director of Wellness Programs, Karen Lee Stevens shares her insights as she explores regular topics and experiences through the lens of mental health, wellness and the human-animal bond.

Nature Over Noise

BLOG POST #10 – Cold Noses, Warm Hearts

June 10, 2024

by KAREN LEE STEVENS

Let’s be honest, suggesting breathing exercises to students to help them calm down isn’t exactly going to win you any gold stars — especially with older kids who think they are “too cool for school.” It’s more likely to be met with the classic teenage eye roll and exasperated head tilt that parents and teachers know all too well.

Teenagers leaning against a wall.

So, you can imagine my surprise when a school counselor recently shared a gem of a conversation with me. Apparently, when some stressed out 5th graders shuffled in for help with an emotional upset, she offered the usual breathing techniques for calming down. The response? A chorus of, “We already learned how to breathe like that with the dogs!”

I knew it! They’ve been paying attention to me all along. Or, more accurately: they’ve been paying attention to our therapy dogs!

Inhale, Exhale
Allow me to explain. For years, I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative impact of our therapy dogs on student well-being. As a Mindfulness Instructor, I bring a therapy dog to every class and I’ve seen the way these cuddly canines can calm anxious minds, soothe frayed nerves, and provide a sense of comfort and security to students facing life’s daily challenges — even the kids who think that practicing mindfulness is b-o-r-i-n-g (cue another round of eye rolls and synchronized head tilts). Here’s the thing: kids are way more receptive to learning when a darling dog is involved. Think about it. Would you rather practice deep breathing with an adult you barely know or with a golden retriever who’s patiently waiting for a tummy rub? Case closed.
Increase Oxytocin, Decrease Cortisol
But how exactly do these canine calm-inducers work their magic? It’s a combination of science and pure adorableness. Studies show that interacting with dogs lowers stress hormones like cortisol and increases feel-good chemicals like oxytocin. Students may walk into their first period class feeling like a deflated balloon. Then, a furry ray of sunshine greets them with a wagging tail and big, soulful eyes. Suddenly, worries seem a little less overwhelming and they actually start to engage with their teacher and fellow students.

The benefits extend beyond the individual student. Therapy dogs can create a more positive and welcoming environment for the entire school community. A grumpy teacher might find themselves cracking a smile at the sight of a playful pup. A shy student might feel more comfortable raising their hand to answer a question when a dog is facilitating the interaction. It’s a win-win situation, with a healthy dose of tail wags and the ubiquitous trail of dog fur thrown in for good measure.

Dog sniffing flowers

But the real secret sauce lies in the way therapy dogs model mindfulness techniques themselves. Think about it: have you ever watched a dog calmly observe the world around them? They sniff with purpose, take slow, deliberate breaths, and focus entirely on the task at hand (which, let’s be honest, is often the pursuit of a particularly interesting squirrel). This inherent calmness is contagious, and students subconsciously pick up on the dog’s peaceful presence.

Now, therapy dogs aren’t miracle workers. They can’t solve all of a student’s problems with a wag of the tail. However, they can provide a safe space for students to learn and practice calming techniques in a non-judgmental environment. Suddenly, those deep breathing exercises the counselor suggested don’t seem so silly anymore. Instead, they become a tool for managing stress, just like the way they see the dogs manage theirs naturally.

Slow down, hug a dog
So, the next time you hear a child expertly practicing deep breathing, don’t be surprised if a therapy dog is the secret instructor. Who knows, maybe it’s a new trend in mindfulness resources: a therapy dog meditation app! We can call it “Calm Canines” or “Doga Downtime” — because who wouldn’t want to learn mindfulness from a four-legged friend with a cold nose and a warm heart?

Just Breathe

Questions or comments? Contact Karen@TherapyDogsSB.org

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“Unleashing Happiness” a monthly blog by Karen Lee Stevens

Founder and Director of Wellness Programs, Karen Lee Stevens shares her insights as she explores regular topics and experiences through the lens of mental health, wellness and the human-animal bond.

Nature Over Noise

BLOG POST #9 – How Full Is Your Bucket?

May 6, 2024

by KAREN LEE STEVENS

It’s hard being a kid these days. Case in point: On a recent cool and cloudy morning, one of my normally bubbly Mindfulness students tugged on the sleeve of my purple t-shirt, and with tears running down her face, whispered: “My bucket was empty yesterday.”

Photo of sad little girl.

I had just finished reading a children’s book to one of my first-grade classes called Have You Filled a Bucket Today? With its simple yet profound message, the book beautifully illustrates the concept of emotional well-being as an invisible bucket we each carry. Every kind word, act of compassion, and moment of joy fills our bucket, leaving us feeling happy and secure. On the flip side, negativity and unkindness deplete our buckets, leading to sadness and anger.

After a gentle inquiry, this sweet little girl told me that she had to spend the weekend at her dad’s house, when all she wanted was the comfort of being in her own home. I surmised that her parents were either separated or divorced and this 6-year-old was being shuttled back and forth between two homes. My heart went out to her, and I knew it was time to offer more than a comforting pat on the shoulder.

Photo of adult and child hands.

Pulling her aside, I suggested we revisit the concept of the invisible bucket. We talked about ways to fill her bucket, even when things felt difficult. We brainstormed ideas like spending quality time with her dad, doing activities they both enjoyed (pillow fort, anyone?), and even making a “Breathing Break” corner in her room at his house where she could go to relax and read or draw.

By the end of our conversation, a glimmer of hope lit up her eyes and I knew her gloomy cloud of sadness had lifted, just like the clouds in the morning sky had suddenly vanished, revealing the brilliant light of the sun.

Mindfulness photo collage
This experience with my young student highlighted the power of Mindfulness in helping children navigate their emotions. Have You Filled a Bucket Today? offered a simple framework for them to understand and actively participate in their emotional well-being. It’s a lesson that resonated with the entire class. Sitting together in a circle on the carpet, with little therapy dog, Echo, snoozing peacefully on her pillow, my students and I explored various ways to fill buckets, both within the classroom and at home. We created “bucket fillers” – small notes acknowledging positive behavior – and decorated them with colorful drawings. These notes served as reminders to spread kindness and fill each other’s buckets throughout the day.
Positive affirmations
Yes, life is challenging – for kids and adults alike. But when we choose kindness and positivity, it’s like filling our own buckets with sunshine. That light spills over, warming the hearts of those around us. A simple smile, a helping hand, a listening ear – these acts, however small, create a ripple effect. We lift one another up, and that collective overflow of care and connection becomes a powerful force in the world. After all, isn’t that what truly defines what it means to be human – fostering a world where everyone’s bucket brims with the joy of belonging and compassion?
Have you filled a bucket today?

Questions or comments? Contact Karen@TherapyDogsSB.org

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The Magic of Music

“Unleashing Happiness” a monthly blog by Karen Lee Stevens

Founder and Director of Wellness Programs, Karen Lee Stevens shares her insights as she explores regular topics and experiences through the lens of mental health, wellness and the human-animal bond.

BLOG POST #8 – The Magic of Music

February 9, 2024

by KAREN LEE STEVENS

It started out as a boring, blank wall in my living room. I searched high and low for a piece of art to fit the space, but nothing seemed to stick—until I came up with the perfect solution: a big screen TV!  A seemingly simple job of hanging a television turned into a big project that required extensive electrical work as well as new drywall, texture, and paint. After all this effort and expense, I admit that I rarely watch television. So what was my motivation for mounting a TV on the wall? To chill out with calming music videos on YouTube!

There’s something incredibly soothing about going through my workday enveloped in the gentle sounds of piano concertos, the soft lull of Native American flutes, and the ethereal hum of harp music. And bonus: these videos showcase mesmerizing visuals — everything from schools of brightly colored fish gliding through the vast ocean to scenes of cozy coffee shops with crackling fires and steam rising from cups of hot tea. There are even music videos to help reduce your dog’s stress and separation anxiety and videos of cuddly cats purring.

My personal favorites are the “Hobbit House” videos, which feature cozy and rustic settings reminiscent of the dwellings found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” series. These videos often showcase peaceful nature scenes with lush forests, rolling hills, or quaint cottages, accompanied by relaxing instrumental music. Viewers are invited to immerse themselves in the enchanting ambiance of these fantasy-inspired settings, providing a tranquil escape from the stresses of daily life.

A television prominently displayed in my living room makes me feel like I’m living in a highbrow art museum, except instead of Monet and Van Gogh, I’m treated to rotating episodes of “Moonlit Lullabies” and “Sunset Serenades.”

Music has a remarkable ability to heal us emotionally and physically, transcending language and cultural barriers to reach the depths of our souls. Its melodies and rhythms can evoke a wide range of emotions, from joy and love to sadness and nostalgia, providing a comforting soundtrack to life’s ups and downs. Beyond its emotional impact, music has been scientifically proven to have therapeutic effects on the body, reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and even alleviating pain. Perhaps Bono, the well-known lead vocalist of the rock band U2, said it best: “Music can change the world because it can change people’s moods.”

If you’re in the mood for some mellow music, try out these popular genres:

1. Classical music: Pieces by composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach are often cited for their calming effects on the mind and body.

2. Ambient music: Ambient sounds and music featuring nature sounds, such as rainfall, ocean waves, or birdsong, can promote relaxation and reduce stress levels.

3. Instrumental music: Music without lyrics, such as instrumental jazz, piano, or guitar music, can help to calm the mind and promote relaxation.

4. Slow-tempo music: Music with a slow beat, characterized by a relaxed rhythm and gentle melodies, has been found to reduce heart rate and induce a state of relaxation.

5. Meditation music: Specifically designed music for meditation, featuring repetitive patterns and serene tones, can help to quiet the mind and reduce stress.

So, the next time you feel stressed or overwhelmed, take a break. Find a calming video or audio soundtrack, sit back, and let the music carry you away. You might be surprised at how much healing power lies within those magical melodies.

Questions or comments? Contact Karen@TherapyDogsSB.org

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“Unleashing Happiness” a monthly blog by Karen Lee Stevens

Founder and Director of Wellness Programs, Karen Lee Stevens shares her insights as she explores regular topics and experiences through the lens of mental health, wellness and the human-animal bond.

BLOG POST #7 – Sit. Stay. Breathe.

February 6, 2024

by KAREN LEE STEVENS

The children were sitting on a multi-colored rug in their classroom, calmly awaiting my arrival and eager to see which therapy dog would be joining our Mindfulness class that day. I, on the other hand, was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway, my monkey mind in overdrive… What if I were late to class or worse, I missed class altogether? That would throw off my whole schedule for all the classes and meetings I had planned for that day, not to mention leaving a roomful of disappointed children.

Thankfully, traffic soon started flowing again and I arrived at the school just in the nick of time. As I settled into one of the tiny blue chairs normally reserved for little ones, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and be vulnerable with the children. I shared with them that I was feeling a bit stressed because I had just spent an hour on the freeway and I was worried that I was going to be late to class. “Would you help me calm down by taking a few nice, deep breaths with me?,” I asked. These darling third graders immediately jumped at the opportunity to help me feel better and together we closed our eyes and started to slowly breathe in and out three times.

Ah…what a difference those three breaths made! I immediately felt more centered, the children were attentive and ready to learn, and therapy dog, Dandelion, was contentedly chewing on a crunchy dog chew, adding a calming presence to the classroom.

Breathing is a fundamental aspect of mindfulness and teaching children the simple act of taking deep breaths is like giving them a superpower, where they feel empowered and in control of their emotions. And, by making breathing exercises fun, perhaps associating them with blowing bubbles or pretending to be a dragon releasing gentle puffs of air, we’re introducing mindfulness in a language that resonates with their youthful spirits.

 

The playful aspect of mindfulness is what makes it so accessible to children. Blowing bubbles becomes a metaphor for letting go, and pretending to be dragons allows them to embrace their power within. It is a reminder that, as adults, we too can infuse a sense of playfulness into our own mindfulness practices, turning what might seem like a chore into a joyful exploration of the self.

As I looked around the room, I marveled at the impact of such a simple yet profound exercise. It was a reminder that mindfulness isn’t just a technique; it’s a shared experience that connects us on a deeper level. The classroom, once filled with giggles and the buzz of anticipation, now exuded a calm energy that set the perfect stage for our mindfulness session.

 

The experience also served as a poignant lesson for me who, at times, still needs a gentle reminder to slow down and center myself amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life. And, the vulnerability I displayed in admitting my stress became a bridge that connected all of us. The children, with wisdom beyond their years, became my teachers, showing me the power of the present moment and the effectiveness of a few intentional breaths.

As I left the classroom that day, I carried with me not just the gratitude of witnessing the transformative power of mindfulness in children, but a renewed commitment to integrate the practice into my daily life. And the gentle wag of Dandelion’s fluffy tail seemed to whisper to me: “Remember to sit, stay, breathe and be open to all of the experiences that life has to offer.”

 

Questions or comments? Contact Karen@TherapyDogsSB.org

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From Pain to Peace

“Unleashing Happiness” a monthly blog by Karen Lee Stevens

Founder and Director of Wellness Programs, Karen Lee Stevens shares her insights as she explores regular topics and experiences through the lens of mental health, wellness and the human-animal bond.

BLOG POST #6 – From Pain to Peace

February 6, 2024

by KAREN LEE STEVENS

As I perched precariously on the edge of a chair in the ER, doubled over in pain, I couldn’t help but reflect on the unexpected turn my day had taken. The night before had brought on a sudden onset of excruciating abdominal pain and hours of vomiting. I was certain I had a bout of food poisoning, likely triggered by lunch the day before at a new restaurant in town. I had been down this road before and I was prepared for a round of fluids and anti-nausea medication and then sent home to rest and recover. I was not, however, prepared for what happened next.

After a blood draw and a CAT scan, the attending physician came in and matter-of-factly said, “You have acute appendicitis and we’ve called in a surgeon from another hospital to perform surgery on you tonight.” I barely had time to call and text a few friends to let them know where I was before I was whisked off to surgery.

The uncertainty of the outcome and the pain that accompanied the whole ordeal was a bit overwhelming, but in the midst of it all, mindfulness emerged as my trusty co-pilot.

Mindfulness meditation is the ability to be fully present in the moment and to become aware of sights, sounds, and sensations in the body. As challenging as it was, I focused on the sensations I was feeling instead of allowing my mind to be consumed by worries about the impending surgery. The soothing feel of a just-warmed hospital blanket, the steady rise and fall of my chest as I breathed, and even those darn air compression leg wraps they insist you wear to aid circulation helped steady my mind.

The surgery itself was a blur, a journey into the unknown realm of anesthesia-induced oblivion. When I awoke in the recovery room, the pain was there, but so was the awareness cultivated through mindfulness. It was a tool I could continue to rely on as I embarked on the road to recovery. Practicing mindfulness was by no means a magical cure, but redirecting my attention to the present moment felt like swapping out my pain playlist for a chill meditation track.

For anyone who has ever undergone surgery, you know that recovery is seldom a linear process. There are good days and challenging ones, moments of progress and setbacks. Mindfulness was my constant companion in those moments of frustration and fatigue. Whether it was the awareness that it was time for another pain pill or the acceptance that my body needed a nap, mindfulness allowed me to navigate the ebb and flow of the recovery process.

Beyond the physical aspects, mindfulness also played a crucial role in managing my emotional state. The vulnerability that comes with surgery and the scars left behind can be emotionally taxing. Mindfulness provided me with a space for self-compassion, allowing me to acknowledge my emotions without judgment. It became a practice of kindness towards myself as I faced the reality of my changed body and the journey I had undertaken.

As I write this post, the three little laparoscopic incisions on my abdomen serve as a visible reminder of that journey. They are not just marks on the skin but symbols of resilience, of a mind that found calm amid chaos. With mindfulness as my anchor, I was able to navigate the choppy waters of life with newfound steadiness.

When life throws you curveballs, as it inevitably does, I encourage you to explore the power of mindfulness. It may not erase the pain, but it can offer a space for peace, acceptance, and even growth. Remember, you’re not alone in your struggles, and within you lies an inner strength waiting to be discovered. So, take a deep breath, be present, and allow mindfulness to be your compass towards hope and healing.

Questions or comments? Contact Karen@TherapyDogsSB.org

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Come On, Get Happy

“Unleashing Happiness” a monthly blog by Karen Lee Stevens

Founder and Director of Wellness Programs, Karen Lee Stevens shares her insights as she explores regular topics and experiences through the lens of mental health, wellness and the human-animal bond.

Karen Lee Stevens discusses Arthur Brooks' new book entitled Build The Life You Want

BLOG POST #5 – Come On, Get Happy

January 3, 2024

by KAREN LEE STEVENS

If you grew up in the ’70s like I did, you probably remember teenage heartthrob, David Cassidy. With his tousled hair, infectious smile, and soulful voice, Cassidy captured the hearts of millions of teenage girls, vis-à-vis Keith Partridge on the hit TV show, The Partridge Family. Every week, Cassidy serenaded viewers with the lyrics to the show’s theme song, Come On, Get Happy. I was beyond smitten by both the boy and the bubblegum music.

Fast forward five decades, and the word “happy” is getting its fair share of media coverage. Perhaps it’s due in part to the research of Harvard professor and happiness expert, Arthur C. Brooks, whose latest book, Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier shot to the #1 spot on the New York Times Bestseller List. This timely tome delves into the science behind happiness, drawing upon cutting-edge research and real-life examples to provide practical guidance on how to cultivate greater joy and fulfillment in our lives. And when you think about it, who among us couldn’t use a little more joy in their lives?

(Side note for all you “O” fans out there: Brooks’s co-author is none other than TV titan, Oprah Winfrey.)

Karen Lee Stevens discusses the science behind happiness.

Happiness, Brooks says, is not just a fleeting emotion; it’s a state of being that many of us actively pursue. We all want to be happy, and in this search for joy, we often find ourselves exploring various avenues, from self-help books to mindfulness practices. And then there are those of us who entertain the notion that material possessions hold the secret to our bliss. Sorry to break it to you, but happiness doesn’t come in the form of a fancy sports car, an extravagant home, or a private jet.

Happiness, it appears, is brewed from engaging in the little things in life, which helps elevate our emotional state and fuels resilience, creativity, and overall happiness. Sipping a steaming cup of tea, sending a note of gratitude to a friend, or —my personal favorite — basking in the soothing presence of a beloved pet are examples of ways we weave together a tapestry of well-being. I’ll bet you can think of many other simple activities that bring you joy. When you actively seek out the small pleasures, it’s like flipping a switch in our minds, illuminating the brighter side of life. In other words: we’re happier.

Karen Lee Stevens talks about the science behind happiness.

Perhaps David Cassidy was on to something with his jovial jingle. Happiness, it turns out, is not a mysterious destination; it’s a joy-filled journey. It’s not about chasing an elusive feeling, but about actively engaging in thoughts and activities that contribute to a life that aligns with our values and brings us fulfillment.

So, as we follow a path toward a happier life, let’s remember the somewhat sappy song by a ‘70s heartthrob and the words of a contemporary happiness guru. Let’s come together, get happy, and build lives filled with joy, gratitude, and the simple pleasures that make each day a brighter, happier journey.

Karen Lee Stevens discusses the science behind happiness.

Questions, comments? Contact Karen@TherapyDogsSB.org

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Hoppy Hearts

“Unleashing Happiness” a monthly blog by Karen Lee Stevens

Founder and Director of Wellness Programs, Karen Lee Stevens shares her insights as she explores regular topics and experiences through the lens of mental health, wellness and the human-animal bond.

Therapy Dogs of Santa Barbara - Blog Post - Hoppy Hearts

BLOG POST #4 – Hoppy Hearts

December 5, 2023 IN HONOR OF INTERNATIONAL VOLUNTEER DAY

by KAREN LEE STEVENS

The day started off like any other Tuesday, but it soon turned into something magical that would open me up to the joys of volunteering. I was helping out at a local animal shelter and the lead volunteer suggested we bring bunnies into a local nursing home for an animal therapy visit. I was intrigued and immediately scooped up a fluffy bunny with velvety fur that felt like a cloud under my fingertips. Her gentle twitching nose and floppy ears added to her charm and her big, expressive eyes invited me into a world of softness and warmth.

The nursing home, with its antiseptic hallways and harsh, fluorescent lighting, was sorely lacking any soothing ambience and personal touches that could have greatly contributed to the patients’ recovery. Determined to make the best of the visit, I made my way from room to room, offering a visit from my charming new friend. As I stopped in the doorway of one room, I could see an elderly lady slumped over in her wheelchair, staring listlessly at the wall. Her adult daughter sat nearby and motioned for me to come in. Mom was nonverbal, but her eyes followed my every move. I explained that I had brought a bunny for her to pet and gently placed the fluff ball in her lap.

The elderly lady sat quietly and smiled during our brief visit. Honestly, I didn’t think I had made much of an impression, but I was about to learn the true power of pet therapy.

As I said my goodbyes and started walking down the dreary hallway, the elderly lady’s daughter ran after me, tears streaming down her face. “That was the first time my mom has smiled in weeks!” she managed to say in between sobs. She went on to explain that her mom recently suffered a stroke and was no longer able to speak. In the grip of depression, the elderly lady found solace and joy when that little bunny nestled in her lap.

On that day, with that little bunny, a spark ignited within me that would illuminate my path toward unforeseen possibilities and growth as an animal therapy volunteer.

Like me, if you’ve ever volunteered for a cause close to your heart, you know it’s not about the accolades; it’s about the difference we make in the lives of others. And that’s what International Volunteer Day is all about. Celebrated each year on December 5, it is a reminder that the world is in need of the unique gifts only you can offer. Whether it’s taking a therapy dog into a school where at-risk children can practice reading aloud to a nonjudgemental listener, serving meals at a homeless shelter, or planning a gigantic gala for a global audience, your contribution is like a beacon of light in a sometimes dark world.

In the end, volunteering is not just about the impact we make; it’s about the connections we forge and the lives we touch. The elderly lady’s smile, born from a simple visit with a bunny, echoes the profound truth that volunteering has a ripple effect of compassion. So, let today be an invitation to embrace the magic that unfolds when you offer a piece of your heart to those who need it most. Each act of kindness, no matter how small, has the power to brighten someone’s day and, as I’ve witnessed countless times, even transform their life.

Questions, comments? Contact Karen@TherapyDogsSB.org

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Attitude of Gratitude

“Unleashing Happiness” a monthly blog by Karen Lee Stevens

Founder and Director of Wellness Programs, Karen Lee Stevens shares her insights as she explores regular topics and experiences through the lens of mental health, wellness and the human-animal bond.

BLOG POST #3 – Attitude of Gratitude

November 7, 2023

by KAREN LEE STEVENS

It’s that time of year again…the leaves are changing colors, the weather is getting cooler and our thoughts are turning to parties, pumpkin pie, and peace on earth. This month, as I wrap up my fall Mindfulness classes just before the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ll be teaching my students about Kindness and Gratitude.

It’s a subject the children consistently rank as one of their favorite classes in our 4-week program. Perhaps it’s because of the shiny red heart I place in each child’s outstretched hand to hold during our Loving Kindness Meditation. As we settle into our seats, close our eyes and begin taking slow deep breaths, we send kind thoughts, first to ourselves, and then to our friends and family, to our community, to all the people in the world, and then to all the animals on the planet. We also reflect on everything we are grateful for in our lives. It’s a powerful exercise that elicits heartfelt emotions of peace, love and joy.

At the end of class, the children get to take home the red heart and it serves as a gentle reminder to slow down and send kindness to themselves and others and to reflect on the many blessings in their lives.

Like the children in my classes, we adults can cultivate a Mindfulness practice that includes being kind and thankful for all the special people and things in our lives. Thanksgiving is the perfect time to start and I’ve included some of my favorite Mindful traditions that you can adopt this holiday season and share with the youngsters in your life.

Mindful Eating – Thanksgiving dinner is a feast for the senses. Encourage kids to savor each bite by eating mindfully. As they take slow, deliberate bites, they can focus on the textures, flavors, and the joy of sharing the meal with loved ones. It’s a moment of shared mindfulness that enhances the sense of togetherness.

Mindful Games – Kids often have tons of energy during the holidays and we adults can channel their excitement into mindful games. If they have a dog or cat, simple activities like fetch, tag or hide-and-seek can become opportunities for kids to practice Mindfulness by paying attention to their pet’s movements and expressions.

Gratitude Journaling -Journaling is one of my favorite ways to reflect on my own blessings, not only during the holidays, but throughout the year. You can help kids create their own gratitude journal or simply buy a notebook. Let them write down or draw the things they’re thankful for. They can also include photographs of things they love, favorite places, or people they appreciate. Keeping a gratitude journal is a wonderful way to encourage Mindfulness and what I like to call “an attitude of gratitude.”

Mindful Walking – After the Thanksgiving meal, embark on a mindful nature walk with kids (weather permitting!). The crisp autumn air, the sound of leaves crunching beneath their feet, and the sight of nature’s vibrant colors offer the perfect setting for Mindfulness. Encourage kids to use their senses to connect with the world around them.

Mindful Storytelling – As the day winds down, put on some cozy PJ’s and snuggle up with your kids (and pets!) for a storytelling session. Share tales of gratitude, random acts of kindness, and the adventures of the day. You can even create a “Gratitude Jar” and write down things you appreciate and place the pieces of paper in the jar. Then, whenever you or your child needs a pick-me-up, take out the slips of paper and read aloud to one another.

Cultivating Mindfulness during the holidays can become a truly heartwarming and enriching experience for you and your children. These activities can help kids learn to appreciate the small things in life and make the most of every moment. So, this Thanksgiving, serve up a generous portion of Mindfulness alongside the pumpkin pie and savor the precious moments with your family.

Questions, comments? Contact Karen@TherapyDogsSB.org

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Finding Your Inner Goat

“Unleashing Happiness” a monthly blog by Karen Lee Stevens

Founder and Director of Wellness Programs, Karen Lee Stevens shares her insights as she explores regular topics and experiences through the lens of mental health, wellness and the human-animal bond.

BLOG POST #2 – FINDING YOUR INNER GOAT

October 6, 2023

by KAREN LEE STEVENS

Whenever I teach Mindfulness to children, I’m prepared for just about anything. Recently, I was guiding a group of enthusiastic 5th graders through a calming breathing exercise and after ringing the singing bowl, signaling the end of our practice, I asked the kids how the exercise made them feel. I received the usual answers… Calm! Happy! Sleepy! Tired! Happy AND Calm! And then, amidst the chorus of young voices, one boy exclaimed with exuberance – “I feel GOATED!”

I thought I had heard just about every possible answer to this question, but I admit this was a new one for me! Curious, I asked him what “goated” meant and he proceeded to tell me (with even more enthusiasm this time) that he felt “the greatest and the happiest I’ve ever felt in my whole life!”

Now, all you sports fans probably know exactly what he meant. Even the folks at Merriam-Webster know what he meant. (Side note for all you logophiles: The dictionary recently added 690 new words to its already beefy book including — you guessed it — “goated”). GOAT, it turns out, is an acronym that stands for Greatest Of All Time and is often used to describe football or soccer players who are considered the absolute best in the history of the sport.

So there you have it. This youngster who felt “goated” had tapped into something truly extraordinary — his ability to change his state of being simply by practicing Mindfulness. He had essentially unleashed his inner greatness and discovered a source of strength, calmness, and resilience within himself that made him feel extraordinary.

We often think of mindfulness as a practice reserved for adults seeking stress relief and inner peace. But here’s the thing – mindfulness isn’t just for grown-ups. Children, too, can benefit immensely from these simple yet profound techniques that include deep breathing, guided imagery, and maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of their thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. For children, this practice can be a superpower.

So, the next time you hear a child say they feel “goated” after a mindfulness practice, don’t be surprised. Instead, celebrate it as a beautiful reminder that they are calling upon their inner goat — their superpower — to transform their young hearts and minds into something truly magical.

As for me, I came up with my own acronym for GOAT — Go Out And Teach. And that’s just what I’m going to continue doing because that’s my superpower — helping kids navigate life’s inevitable ups and downs through the practice of mindfulness and feeling the greatest and the happiest they’ve ever felt in their whole lives.

Questions, comments? Contact Karen@TherapyDogsSB.org

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