BARNEGAT – A four-legged Barnegat Township School district staff member named Winnie assumes a vital role on Wednesdays when schools are in session.
The three-year-old Shih Tzu bichon mix even has a day named after her, according to Winnie’s owner Joanne Fedorczyk. Students and their teachers alike can’t wait to take part in “Wacky Winnie Wednesday.”
When it’s her day to head to work as a therapy dog, Winnie dresses in a fashionable outfit and waits for her special school bus. Winnie greets her driver and special handler, Michele Cucinotta, with a big smile and multiple licks of appreciation. The two often wear coordinating apparel carefully selected by Fedorczyk.
Cucinotta, herself, stands out as a staple in the Barnegat Township School district. Although her current title is K-8 Student Assistance Coordinator/Drug Free Community Support Coordinator, the long-time teacher and guidance counselor’s influence appears limitless.
Winnie’s owner designed the top Cucinotta wore to a recent visit to the Cecil C. Collins Elementary School. The shirt provided a translation of the pup’s soft bark to “Winnie Makes a Positive Impact” as a message of comfort for those dealing with anything “ruff” in their lives.
Teachers escorted their classes into the cafeteria, where Winnie and Cucinotta awaited their arrival. The white-haired pooch pitter-pattered to the door to formally welcome the kindergarten through second-grade students.
Even through faces masked in compliance with COVID-19 restrictions, smiles lit up the room. Children who don’t usually volunteer for classroom attention clamored to come up front and have all eyes on them.
“What would you like Winnie to do for you?” Cucinotta asked an eager kindergarten student. “She can dance, she can speak, or she can do tricks.”
The young boy wanted to see the pup dance and did not notice as Cucinotta slipped Winnie a treat. Winnie hopped on her hind legs and pirouetted, showing off her burgundy velvet coat with the fake fur collar.
Second-grade teacher Cindy Ackerman opted for a reward system for pupils who wanted a chance to interact with Winnie personally. She awards students S.O.A.R. tickets for actions considered Successful, Outstanding, Accepting and/or Responsible.
On the day Ackerman’s class visited Winnie, her student Holly Rodriguez celebrated her eighth birthday. The young girl hoped her S.O.A.R. ticket would get her to the front of the room. It did.
“I helped out my friends,” explained Holly. “That’s how I earned my S.O.A.R. ticket.”
Winnie’s magic continued to provide the desired effect as a string of students took their chance to head to the front of the room. Cucinotta ultimately sat down with Winnie as children prepared to return to their classrooms. Teachers and students took a moment to pet, hug, or kiss the sweet animal. Some of the kids also placed their arms around Cucinotta and embraced her.
The hugs spoke for themselves as they delivered a clear message. Cucinotta admitted she’s never met many of the children who expressed their feelings after their short encounter with Winnie. A sense of excitement transcended to one of calmness and gratitude. The human/doggie therapy team hit its intended mark session after session.
Winnie plans to pose for her portrait in the school district’s yearbooks. That said, she’s not the first canine to smile for the cameras. Her big sister, Tink, a 14-year-old Shih Tzu originated the dog therapy program in Barnegat schools and claimed her yearbook spot first.
Fedorczyk personally trained both Tink and Winnie as comfort animals. Tink’s career began with visiting seniors in Tallwoods Care Center in Bayville.
Nursing home trips became a thing of the past after Fedorczyk learned she had breast cancer and needed to go through chemotherapy. Tink seemingly knew something was wrong with her owner even before doctors diagnosed her.
Tink has aged out as a therapy dog and is enjoying her retirement. While Winnie continues to provide joy to children in the Barnegat Township School district, she maintains a second job at home.
“She’s more of a service animal to me,” Fedorczyk said. “Winnie helps me quite a bit.”