The day after meeting and interacting with Henry “Fonzie” Winkler at an ArcLight Chicago screening of Barry, an HBO series featuring the former Happy Days star, Carole Yuster finds her thrill at 10 o’clock by talking about the encounter at Egg Harbor Café in Lake Forest.
“What a nice man,” says Yuster, executive director and founder of K-9 Reading Buddies of the North Shore (K9RBNS), a nonprofit that supplements literacy programs by using reading teams consisting of registered therapy dogs and qualified handlers to strengthen reading skills of grade-school students while boosting confidence.
The organization — born in 2007 but celebrating its 10th year as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit — has a fetching tagline: A Reading Buddy of a Different Breed.
“Did you know,” Yuster adds, “Henry wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until he was 31? He had a difficult childhood, thinking he was stupid when he wasn’t. Reading to one of our dogs would have helped him. Did you know he’s written [dozens] of children’s books [since 2004]? I talked dogs with him after the screening and found out he’s a dog lover who’s about to get a puppy.”
Yuster’s dog, a Golden Retriever named Simba, isn’t a registered therapy dog, but the woman’s best friend has done wonders for the Highland Park resident by just being a loyal member of the family. Simba sometimes joins Yuster and her husband, Keith, on jogs.
“Simba,” Carole says, “has given me therapy, has given me stress relief. When you pet a dog, you’re in the present and you immediately relax. When you’re relaxed, you’re more focused. The children in our K-9 Reading Buddies program often find that focus while reading to our dogs; some of them also show pictures in the books to our dogs. You read better and comprehend better when you’re focused.”
Yuster turns her attention — after ordering the Sir Dugan frittata, mixed fruit and dry whole wheat toast — to her organization’s inaugural K9 Pup Strut & Expo, to be held May 5, from 9 a.m.-2 p.m., at Sunset Woods Park in Highland Park. People of all ages will walk, with or without a dog, for a mile on that day. Free expo offerings afterward include dog costume and trick contests; pet portraits; an animal communicator; and more than 25 canine business- and service-related booths.
“The event isn’t just for residents from all over the North Shore; I also consider it a party for all of our volunteers, a celebration, really, of what our K-9 teams have been able to do for kids in a nonjudgmental environment,” says Yuster, adding K9RBNS boasts 50-60 volunteers and services 13 schools and eight libraries along the North Shore. “These kids, with our buddies right next to them, become more and more motivated to read with each session.
“Struggling readers,” she adds, “need emotional support; that’s what we provide.”
K9RBNS is modeled in part after Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.). K9RBNS began more than 10 years ago in a Starbucks in Lake Forest, with Yuster convening a get-together with Jill Motew, Lisa Goldberg, Tena Russ and Shari Fine. Former Highland Park Councilwoman Terri Olian helped the group clear a major hurdle — a city ordinance prohibiting dogs on school property and in public buildings — after Yuster (a German major, with a minor in journalism, at Michigan State University) had written a proposed exception to the ordinance.
The city council unanimously passed the exception in June 2007.
Nearly three months later teams of K-9 Reading Buddies entered the Green Bay Early Childhood Center in Highland Park and started to transform young learners’ lives.
“I just created and shared a vision, and people seemed to like it,” Yuster says. “All of our registered therapy dogs are family pets, owned by professionals who live on the North Shore. These professionals, wonderful and successful men and women, are giving back, making a difference for others. Everybody benefits. You should see what goes on in a room with an engaged youngster reading to an attentive dog. Magic. Magic happens.”
A small mountain of books teeters on Yuster’s bedside table. She developed a love for reading from her late mother, Barbara, a travel agent who put three children through college.
“She was the backbone of our family, my main inspiration,” says Yuster, the mother of Adam, a 21-year-old student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “I wanted to be like her.”
In addition to running with Simba and her husband, fit-for-life Yuster bikes, does yoga, aces spin classes, swims and standup paddleboards.
“I want to teach Simba to paddleboard with me,” she says.
Yuster hands me a business card and a K9RBNS brochure and a K9RBNS bookmark.
As I arrange the material in a small pile atop our table at Egg Harbor Café, I notice another item. It’s also for me.
It’s a big paperclip — in the shape of a dog bone.
For more information about K-9 Reading Buddies of the North Shore and registering for next month’s K9RBNS/Park District of Highland Park K9 Pup Strut & Expo, please call (847) 208-2267 or visit k9readingbuddies.org/events.