PEABODY, MA — The spirit of a young girl who was taken from the Peabody community too soon will live on in the first Peabody Public Schools comfort therapy dog charged with bringing a lift to those students in times of trouble and trauma.
The Peabody School Committee on Monday approved School Resource Officer Eric Ricci’s introduction of “Ella” the English Black Labrador Retriever as the district’s new comfort dog with the name of Ella, in memory of Ella Jade O’Donnell, who died one month shy of her 11th birthday in 2017 of pediatric brain cancer and whose battle inspired “Ella’s Army” in search of a disease cure.
“With the full support of the O’Donnell family, Ella is named for Ella O’Donnell, an extraordinary young girl who lives on in our memory and our hearts within everyone in our community,” Peabody Schools Resource Office Eric Ricci said. “(Ella) was described by all as a resilient, brilliant and joyous little girl whose memory will live on for many years to come. Ella had the ability to put smiles on everyone’s face she encountered. Just as I hope, and the department hopes , that our new furry police member will as well.”
Ricci said emotional support animals contribute to the community in many ways. They assist students in helping regulate an assortment of challenges, including emotional and behavioral concerns.
“Ella will serve not only as a pillar of comfort within our community but will help to enrich the support that the Peabody School System has to offer for all of our students,” Ricci said.
Ricci said Ella will be available for all Peabody Public Schools from the elementary level through high school. She will be part of classroom discussions as well as welcome students as they arrive at schools, attend school functions throughout the school year and be visible at school sports events and other events within the community.
She will not be trained as a patrol function dog and will be trained only for obedience.
“Ella’s only job will be a comfort dog designated to be there as a comfort dog to be there for all members of the community,” Ricci said.
Superintendent Josh Vadala said the process of bringing a comfort dog aboard at Peabody Public Schools began before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and is especially needed two years after the effects of its onset.
“We’re very excited about this program,” Vadala said. “Officer Ricci had come to me and asked about the potential of bringing a comfort dog into the schools and I couldn’t be happier about this. Many districts are exploring this option but Peabody is one of the first to be able to implement this. Possibly the first on the North Shore.
“We’ve talked about the importance of mental health and really addressing the needs of our students. We’ve seen through our therapy dog programs that having a therapy dog — especially a trained dog in a situation — can ultimately deescalate a situation whether it’s with adults or kids.
“We’ve seen the benefits of kids being able to read to dogs, kids just being able to feel comfortable. As you see when you meet this little angel over here, everybody just melts.”
(Scott Souza is a Patch field editor covering Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead, Peabody, Salem and Swampscott. He can be reached at Scott.Souza@Patch.com. Twitter: @Scott_Souza.)