An Orangeburg-based program that uses rescued and abused animals to teach school children compassion has been recognized for its work.
Healing Species received the Dick and Tunky Riley WhatWorksSC Award for Excellence on Friday. The award recognizes initiatives that explore strategies for improving South Carolina’s public schools.
"We were so pleased and excited and surprised," Healing Species founder and President Cheri Brown Thompson said. "There were some really great programs that were nominated."
The award was presented at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center by former South Carolina governor and U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley.
The award is hosted by Furman University’s Riley Institute and South Carolina Future Minds and given to one of three finalists in recognition of their outstanding education initiatives.
The Dick and Tunky Riley WhatWorksSC Award is dedicated to the memory of Ann “Tunky” Riley, a teacher and advocate for public education for all children.
The award presentation was sponsored by the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, the South Carolina School Boards Association, South Carolina PTA and South Carolina ETV.
Healing Species was cited for its success, resulting in a 72 percent drop in student discipline referrals. It was called “a model program for at-risk students” in public schools.
The organization received $5,000 as the winner. The money will go toward Healing Species programs in Marshall Elementary School, William J. Clark Middle School and Denmark-Olar Middle School.
"We have committed to stepping out in faith where we did not have full funding," Thompson said. "We also took in five new rescues. We were hoping we could earn the money. That is how we operate, on a shoestring budget. This will be helpful."
Thompson also thanked Williams and Williams Attorneys at Law, Sen. Brad Hutto and Cox Industries for sponsoring the program.
The award is “super special” for Thompson, who founded Healing Species in 1999.
She was diagnosed with bone cancer in August 2015 and had to have spinal surgery including six months of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant.
Thompson said she had thought about retiring from the organization and ending its 16 years of providing healing to those in the community.
But it was just too much to bear.
"I was not worrying about the cancer but was worrying about those kids at Clark and Marshall and Mellichamp and Denmark," Thompson said. "Who would go to them if we did not go? Who would tell them that they are loved, that they have a promise, that they have a future ahead of them and that they can overcome anger and violence?"
"I could not give it up," Thompson continued. "We feel the community does not want us to stop."
Thompson said she remembers talking to God about the future of Healing Species.
Struggling with this thought, Thompson said the Lord answered her prayers.
"The Lord dropped from the heavens this girl out of the blue (Erin Buie) and she said I will run Healing Species and you can be on the sidelines and tell me what to do," Thompson said. "We have amazing instructors who go out into the field and teach."
Thompson expressed her thanks to her staff for continuing the Healing Species outreach.
Buie “rolled up her sleeves and dove in 100 percent," she said.
Other finalists for the award included Charleston-based Engaging Creative Minds and Darlington-based Partners for Unparalleled Local Scholastic Excellence, administrated by the Teach Foundation. Both programs received $1,000.