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A calming presence: DeSana Middle School nurse uses therapy dog with students
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Forsyth County News

SOUTHWEST FORSYTH -- Rebecca McWalters can have 20 students in her nurse’s clinic at a time on any given lunch, but none of them are sick.

They all want to say hi to Frosty. Pet him, sit with him.

DeSana Middle School may be the Dragons, but Frosty the 8-and-a-half-year-old yellow Labrador has become an icon at the school off Union Hill Road in southwest Forsyth as a therapy dog in the clinic.

McWalters was named Forsyth County Schools Employee of the Month in March by the Board of Education, largely because of her work with the “kiddos” and Frosty.

“There’s quite a few teachers that have made it almost a routine that once or twice a week, they’ll send students down to pick up Frosty and go back to their class,” she said. “We’ve seen a huge benefit of having Frosty here for some of these kiddos.”

Frosty goes to school with McWalters every day.

“Where I go, Frosty goes,” she said, sitting at her desk in the nurse’s clinic. On the far side of the room are two beds with curtains around each. That is the only thing that looks like a traditional school nurse’s clinic.

There is a corner with squishy chairs. To sit in front of her desk for a chat, there is one chair and one orange medicine ball. A map of the world on the wall has pin-sized stickers for the place each student was born – stickers litter the entire world.

A bookcase is home to a beta fish named Bluebell and Alejandro the Amphibian – a frog who students named when he was just a tadpole.

Under a photo of Frosty on the wall next to McWalters’ desk, on the floor in front of Max and Cleo the fire-bellied toads, is Frosty.

He is calm, sleepy almost.

“What’s really unique about Frosty is his temperament. He’s always been a calm lab. Labs are not usually calm. Labs are not usually laid back,” McWalters said. “But he is.”

The nurse-canine duo was formed at McWalters’ job at The Shepherd Center in Atlanta. In nursing school, she did her senior internship there and was hired out of it almost 10 years ago, specializing in spinal cord injuries in adolescents.

She was the one who asked for the first therapy dog at the center. Now they have four.

Frosty was invited to Whitlow Elementary School for a presentation on what he does there, and McWalters said seeing him with younger kids was “completely fascinating.”

“My mom was a school nurse, and I had always in the back of my mind thought of being a school nurse, but this really opened up doors,” she said. “I became a substitute nurse, and the kids are such a hoot. The kids are so much fun. And then it was just open door after another, and I met Mrs. [Principal Terri] North, and she hired me. And Frosty.”

A student walks into her office. She does not wait to be asked to sit down. She carries herself like she knows the space well.

“Can I chill here for this period? There’s a substitute and it’s just going to be really loud and I won’t be able to do anything,” she asks.

“With kids,” McWalters had said minutes earlier, “it’s very fascinating because you can have a child who is very anxious, scared, and you bring a dog into the mix and the child instantly calms down, becomes engaged. The fear is taken away, and as the child is petting the dog, Frosty or any dog, the child starts to open up.

“And so we’ve been able to use Frosty here for anxiety, our children that are fearful just because middle school can be so overwhelming. The clinic has become a safe area, and teachers know if a child is struggling in class for whatever reason, they can bring them here and have Frosty time.”

She said there are a few students who struggle with anxiety and depression who visit Frosty in her office regularly, but students also come and take him to classes. He goes to art class a couple times a week.

“In the beginning it was quite a bit [of students visiting regularly], but now that school is … almost ended it’s gotten less and less,” she said. “Frosty has definitely been a part of that process.”

Allowing students to visit Frosty and miss some class is better than having to send them home, she said.

“We allow them to have quality time with Frosty, which calms them down so they can go back to class, and that’s been really neat to see that the kids respond so well to him,” she said.

He helps students who are on the other end of anxious, too.

“He’s perfect for kids who are already overexcited by the stimulants and chaos at school,” McWalters said. “He’s so calm that he calms them down.”

Two more students come in and ask if they can take Frosty to art class. McWalters says yes. Before they leave, the girl who had asked to stay in the clinic for a period kneels down, wordlessly, wraps both arms around the stomach of the dog. Frosty neither makes a sound nor moves, silently making it better.