Over the past week, the schools in Kotzebue have brought in support from surrounding villages and have had nine counselors available for students as they deal with the death of their classmate, Ashley Johnson-Barr, who was found dead outside the community last week.

In the classrooms on Friday, sadness turned to smiles as the kids received a surprise visit from a different kind of support team. 

“Our dogs have the best job in the world,” Margaret Griffo told fifth-graders in Ashley’s class. “Our dogs come and be with people when they’re feeling sad.”

Griffo and her dog, a Keeshond named Waverly, were one of three teams from the National Crisis Response Canines that flew to Kotzebue from Anchorage. The dogs provide “psychological first aid” and emotional therapy for the students.


Waverly, a yellow Labrador named Tia, and Ali, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, made their way through the classrooms as the children’s faces lit up with joy.

“They made us happy because the dogs were really cute,” said 10-year-old Mylie McConnell, a good friend of Ashley’s.

She said Ali was her favorite. “She was so cute and tiny!”

Alaska Airlines brought the dogs to Kotzebue to work their employees, then the company donated to service to the school.

“They are so engaged in our community,” said elementary school assistant vice principal Zonda Martin. “Their employees have students here within our school, their employees pitched in and helped with the search efforts.”

Martin said Ashley’s death has impacted students and staff as they try to cope with the sudden loss.

 

Having the crisis canines come in gives them a different outlet for their feelings.

“It’s a diversion from the heavy thoughts they have had,” Martin said.

Counselors from the neighboring villages are on standby to come back to Kotzebue as needed as the community begins to heal.

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