According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), approximately 34% of students are below basic reading level in the fourth grade. Moreover, some 36 million adults in the U.S. don’t have basic reading, writing, and math skills above a third-grade level. Illiteracy is a problem that goes far beyond just not being able to read a book or write. It can cause a lot of damage to an individual’s adult life. It impacts communication with peers, family, and employers, and it can prevent someone from actualizing their full potential in life. Building a strong foundation and learning these skills early on can prevent problems such as unemployment or societal disconnection later on in life. With the right tools, child illiteracy can be prevented and corrected. Parents, teachers, social workers, government officials, and other community members play key roles in helping to build this solid foundation for the younger generation.
Cindie Hudson, a dental instructor at Ross Education in Kokomo, Indiana, is extremely passionate about this cause. She has made it her mission to help combat child illiteracy in her community. Cindie began her career as a dental assistant in Kokomo and, over the last few years, started teaching at Ross Medical Education Center. Through her community service acts, Cindie has found that she is really passionate about helping kids improve their literacy skills. To make an even bigger impact in the community, she decided to have both of her golden retrievers, Harlee and Seger, become certified therapy dogs with Therapy Dog International.
A few times a week, Cindie takes Harlee and Seger to local hospitals, schools, and agencies who provide care for people with developmental disabilities. When they visit schools, the kids read to Harlee and Seger. The idea is that by reading to dogs, who are accepting and non-judgmental, kids can practice their reading and become more confident about it. She became inspired to do this a while back when she attended a reading program at her local library that helped young children learn to read. She not only discovered that she is really passionate about helping kids improve their reading, but she also learned that child illiteracy is a really big problem in the community, as well as all over the country. It was through that program and seeing the children’s interaction with her therapy dogs that she decided to write about Harlee and Seger’s experiences and adventures. She realized the importance of children learning to read at a young age and hopes that her book, Yellow Dog, will help to set up younger readers for success.
We took some time to talk to Cindie to learn more about her new book, Yellow Dog, as well as her journey and how she got to where she is now.
Here is what she had to say:
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your hobbies, interests, passions, etc.
I live in Kokomo, Indiana with my husband, Mark, and our two dogs, Harlee and Seger. I also have a daughter who is 30 and married. She lives in Indiana as well, along with her husband. I was teaching at the Junior College before Ross. I actually started at Ross when it had just opened and I’ve been here ever since. In terms of hobbies and passions, I love volunteering with my two golden retrievers, who are certified therapy dogs. We go to different schools and organizations around town and help children improve their reading levels. I also really enjoy teaching dentistry here at Ross. When I’m not teaching or volunteering with the dogs, I love to travel with my family and friends as much as I can.
How did you get started with volunteering?
When I was in my mid 40s, I knew that I didn’t want to work full-time. I started teaching part-time, and that also allowed me to have enough time to volunteer and give back to my community. So that’s kinda where the journey started.
As for volunteering, I’ve always loved dogs and anything community-related, so I thought why not volunteer with them. A while back, I searched for a really good golden retriever breeder in Richmond, Indiana, whose lineage was therapy and search and rescue dogs. So I took my trainer, met up with the individuals from this organization, and we kinda just went from there. I had to put a deposit down for the breeding, and my trainer and I went down there when the puppies were born. They also did the therapy dog test to see which puppy was the best suited because that test had to be done between days 28 and 31 of a puppy’s life.
The dogs are real, certified therapy dogs. They’ve been through training, they’re certified, and they have all their credentials. Some people think that any dog can be called a therapy dog, but that’s not the case. Therapy dogs have to go through a very specific training. So with that, I got involved with therapy work. I participated in a children’s reading program, and during that time, I did some research and found that in the state of Indiana, as well as all across the US, the reading levels were very low. When children read to adults, they sometimes get nervous and don’t perform as well. When they read to dogs, though, they feel more relaxed and they can do it with ease because the dogs are not judging them. This can lead to them gaining more confidence and increasing their reading, writing, and speech skills.
My female golden retriever, Harlee, and I got involved with the Paws to Read program. The way it would work is, children would select books from the library and they’d sit and pet a dog while reading to them. The nice thing about it is that dogs are non-judgemental, so the child gains confidence while reading because they feel more comfortable.
I had the experience of working with a young gal who is in grade school. She was behind in her reading level, and her mother had confided that she also had ADHD, so she was a little bit concerned. This little girl began reading to my dog in May and continued to read throughout the summer on a regular basis. Then school started up again and when she was at the library in September, she said, “May I read a book to Harlee?” When we first started, she could read maybe a paragraph or so before she got distracted and frustrated. Well, she not only read a book, but she read three books. So she exceeded her reading level and jumped up two grade levels in such a short amount of time.
While I was at the Paws to Read program, one of the board members from a local school in the community contacted me and said, “We see this need that you are filling in the community, and we’d like to have you at the school for a couple days of days a month to work on speech and reading skills with our kids.” So I began going to one of the local schools every Friday and they would put us in the speech room to practice with the kids. It was nice because the speech therapist would still be there. She would be at her desk typing away or doing whatever else needed to be done. The children could read out loud to Harlee with ease, and she could still listen and detect whether or not there was a speech skill that maybe needed to be worked on. You know how children sometimes pronounce their Rs and Ls a little bit differently. So it was great because then she could hear those things without the child being self-conscious about it. Harlee’s name is actually one of their words that they work on because some of the kids would call her “Harwee.” That was a word they would practice on a daily basis, and it’s now forever ingrained up on their board. I pretty much focus on pre-kindergarten and early or beginner readers up through second grade.
That’s how I got started. Just being involved with the kids and dogs is what inspired me to write my book.
How did you get the idea to write your book?
At Christmas time, we traveled down to Sanibel Island, Florida, and we took Harlee and Seger with us. They were just playing on the beach and I got the idea to write a book, so that’s where the story was written. It came to life over there kind of just by watching their experiences and interactions with the other people on the beach. Children just gravitate to that breed because they are always smiling.
Was this your first book?
This was my first book, but I also have two other books that I’m working on at the moment. The publishing process was delayed quite a bit actually because of the pandemic. Now looking back on it, I’m kinda glad because I’ve learned a lot about book publishing through this entire process. I submitted my book to several different publishing companies. Most of them were closed for a while. When they opened back up, there were quite a few delays, so the process of publishing took longer than expected, but that’s okay. I was just really happy that I had finished writing my first book.
Nobody knew that I wrote a book. I hadn’t shared that information with my husband, my daughter, or anybody else. One day, during a family gathering, we were at our home and my daughter, her husband, some of our close friends, and in-laws were there. We were having dinner and I told them that I wrote a book. They were all so surprised and they wanted me to read it to them. So I read it to them and my father-in-law, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer at the time, was there. I remember he just looked at me and said, “Cindie, all you have to do is sell one book in every town.” I’m like, yeah, I never thought of it that way. I mean I never wrote it for the money. That wasn’t the goal. I wrote it because my goal is to increase reading in children. The whole focus was to get kiddos reading. I believe that if you follow your passion, the money will come as well, but that shouldn’t be the main goal. If you just go for the money then you won’t be motivated for long. And not necessarily money, but happiness as well. Everything falls into place when you follow your passion. That’s what I did when I started teaching. I was really passionate about what I did, and everything just fell into place.
My family was extremely supportive with everything. A month or so after I read it to my family, I sent it to a few publishers to see if they would accept it. Two of them immediately got back to me and said they would love to publish my book. When I say God kinda puts me and the dogs where he wants us, I really mean it. Also, it was quite the coincidence, because the publishing company in Pennsylvania published the book under another name. It’s called Rose Dog, which was the sub-company, but that also happened to be the name of my dog’s grandmother. So it’s like God had a little bit of a hand in all of it.
Why are you so passionate about volunteering?
Seeing where other people come from gives you a better understanding of a conversation. People can be so judgmental, but if you understand where somebody’s viewpoint is coming from, maybe you can understand why they’re speaking the way they are. Everyone has different experiences, upbringings, perspectives on the world, cultures, religions, etc.
So in my courses, I talk quite a bit about the importance of volunteering. I try to get my students out to dental offices, especially when they are doing a free day of dentistry, so that way they can learn more and utilize the skills that they’ve learned. It also gives them good exposure to the field, especially if they are early in their program. I try to set them up for success and give them a little bit of that fire to get them excited. I have quite a few connections in the community as well, and they are always happy to help out when I want to bring in my students to their offices. It might be something simple too, like serving donuts to the veterans as they’re waiting to get their dental work done. Just getting them out in the field is really important to me because I know it will benefit them a lot.
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to follow a new course in life?
Don’t be afraid to take the leap! If you don’t try, you’ll have regrets. So I always tell my students to be courageous and just go for it, if they feel called to do so. If you fail, then get right back at it, but don’t be afraid to take a risk.
Also, just remember that God puts us in certain situations so that we can grow and learn from them, and then share our experiences with others. I always tell my students that if you haven’t experienced it, you haven’t been doing it long enough.
Doing therapy work, God has placed me in situations [where] he’s needed me. I might have thoughts that I need to be doing this or that but God has always guided and put me where he wanted me when it came to doing therapy work, and therefore, reading with kids is where he needed me. So again, following that passion. I try to communicate with my students the importance of community and volunteer work. Not only in their job, but in the classroom as well. I put them out to volunteer in the community at least once a month and sometimes even more often than that because I always feel like you need to give to your community. Especially if you’re going to be in a profession like dentistry. You need to be empathetic, sympathetic, and compassionate.
What are some of your future goals and aspirations?
I want to continue writing and teaching. I have two new books that I am currently working on right now. I also really enjoy some things that have been brought my way during the pandemic. And then, of course, I would love to continue to drive that passion of volunteering and giving back to the community and encouraging my students to do the same. I also volunteer at the hospital, and they’ve finally cleared us to come back to do therapy work. So I will be doing that with my dog, Seger.