KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Extra hands are wrapping presents for customers at Mast General Store in downtown Knoxville over the weekend. These volunteers are raising money for an organization that pairs at-risk teens with rescue dogs.
"We use this as one of our biggest fundraisers of the year," said Julie Gause, a member of the board with Humans and Animals Learning Together (H.A.L.T.).
H.A.L.T. has been serving at-risk teens in the Knoxville area for over 30 years. In a sense, around 300 teenagers and 300 dogs have been rescued in that time.
"The teenagers at will provide training for the dogs, which come from the Young William's Animal Shelter," Gause said. "We usually do five dogs at a time, twice a year."
The teens train the dogs and help them learn basic obedience like 'sit,' 'stay' and 'come.' Officials with the group said dogs are more likely to get adopted if they already know these basic commands.
However, Gause said the benefit extends beyond helping four-legged friends.
"One of our students said to me one day, 'You know, we really connect with these dogs because no one wants us either.' And, I think that that's part of the connection. Sometimes, these kids don't feel like they quite fit in and the dogs really help them to learn that they do," Gause said.
Gause was unable to share the names of the teens they help, nor what other recovery programs they are a part of. However, many of them are overcoming great hardships, such as battles with mental health, substance abuse or neglect.
The dogs help with that healing.
"Dogs show you unconditional love. They don't care who you are, where you're from, or how you look or how you act. They're just happy that you're there and happy that you're paying attention to them," Gause said.
The teens do not get to keep the dogs they train. However, they can write notes for their future owners.
The donations raised from the gift wrapping fundraiser at Mast General will go toward boarding and feeding the dogs during the training program.
For more ways to donate visit the H.A.L.T. website.