CARENCRO, La. (AP) — The Thibodeaux family ventured from Breaux Bridge to Carencro to spend part of their Saturday in a small concrete block room reading together and being crawled on by fuzzy kittens.
Brylee Thibodeaux, 9, usually sticks to Babysitter’s Club books and big sister Bailee, 12, prefers mysteries like Sherlock Holmes. But this Saturday they started with Cookie’s Week, which follows a black-and-white kitten through the days of the week.
It was one of the books in a pile on the floor, along with others featuring Pete the Cat, the Aristocats and more literary felines. They’re options provided every other month during Kitty Litter-ature, when children and adults can volunteer to read to cats at Acadiana Animal Aid, the no-kill shelter in north Lafayette Parish.
The program began in 2015 as a way to socialize kittens and ready them for adoption, while also providing kids a safe space to practice their reading skills outside the classroom.
“I really want the kids to build confidence in reading and families to see the value of cats and that Acadiana Animal Aid exists to create a safe place for animals to wait until they find their homes,” Acadiana Animal Aid Executive Director Jeanine Foucher said. “I want to bring the community closer to us and elevate companion animals.”
Most of participants in the volunteer-facilitated reading experience usually range in age from 5 to 10, but some older and younger ones come as well, Foucher said.
Bailee and Brylee’s mom, Jacqueline Thibodeaux, discovered the event through Facebook and was up for it “because we love cats.” They are maxed out with three of their own at home.
“We would take all of them if we could,” she said, “so we came to get our kitty snuggles.”
Becky Griffin brought her 7-year-old daughter, Parker, to read and play with the cats Saturday. They don’t have pets at home, so this was a chance to do something fun together and grow more comfortable around animals.
“I always wanted to come to the shelter,” the mom from Lafayette said. “This was the push I needed to get out here.”
But it’s not just about the “kitty snuggles.” The program gives kids a different kind of audience for their reading, one that doesn’t give a grade or notice if they stumble.
“The kitties don’t judge,” said Beth Wilson, who has volunteered with Acadiana Animal Aid for years.
Wilson and other volunteers can help with the cats as well as reading, if the children want.
Retired third-grade teacher Linda Cushmeyer began volunteering with the shelter program a few months ago, on hand to help kids sound out a tricky word or just share the book load. One week she took turns with a little girl, each reading one page before handing the book to the other.
“The kids enjoy showing off how well they can read, and the ones who are not strong readers have been receptive to some help,” Cushmeyer said.
Parker described herself as “not a very strong reader,” but she was able to quickly make out the title of “The Family Book.” Maybe her reading skills were stronger than she thought.
This is something Tori Flint, assistant professor of literacy at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, is following in her research on play-literacies and reading motivation.
“My research looks at literacy outside the classroom, which people often don’t recognize as impactful, and at connecting play-literacy potential,” Flint said.
She’s been to several sessions of Kitty Litter-ature this year, sitting back and observing as kids and parents turn pages and pet cats. She’s studying the program as a literacy researcher, having received institutional approval from the university and permission from the shelter and participants.
“I ask kids about reading in school and they say they actually don’t like reading there but they do like reading with cats,” Flint said.
As a “teacher of teachers” in Louisiana-Lafayette's College of Education, Flint sees potential for incorporating this idea, or at least the lessons learned from the program, in future classrooms. The cats provide motivation and a playful environment in which kids can experience the world around them.
“They see themselves as the ‘expert’ reader rather than the ‘struggling’ reader they might be at school,” Flint said. “Those connections are really important. It makes it fun, but also lets them practice their reading and makes them want to practice.”
Meghan Alleman, from Breaux Bridge, brought her 8- and 6-year-old children to get more exposure to cats and more reading experience.
“I wanted to get them some experience reading with an audience and help them be more confident reading in a different environment,” Alleman said.
Together they read the Shy Little Kitten, which was appropriate as two of the three in their room stuck mostly to one corner. The third, though, wasn’t shy at all, tumbling over the pile of books on his way to their laps.
Alleman said they’ll be back for another round of Kitty Litter-ature, which takes place every other month.
To find out more or to volunteer, contact Foucher at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Acadiana Animal Aid on Facebook.