By Jennifer Neville, Catholic News Service
HAMPTON, Va. | “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Those words from Chapter 4 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians are words by which Melanie Paul lives.
Deaf since she was 12, Paul has had a successful career as a guidance counselor and has helped countless people through her volunteer work, most notably her animal-assisted therapy, which has provided emotional and physical support to people in health care facilities for 19 years.
A native of Pennsylvania, Paul lost her hearing after being prescribed the antibiotic Streptomycin, which in rare instances can cause deafness, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website. She became deaf within three months of starting the medication.
Despite her disability, Paul, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Hampton, persevered. Returning to the Catholic school she had attended since first grade, she quickly learned to lip read and remained at the school until eighth grade after which she entered a public high school.
There, teachers encouraged her to pursue a vocational track rather than an “academic” one. Their discouragement of her aspiration to go to college didn’t deter her. In fact, she said, it mustered her will to prove them wrong.
“I am an optimist when it comes to setting goals for myself and never back down when things become hard,” Paul told The Catholic Virginian, newspaper of the Diocese of Richmond. “As a matter of fact, I love challenges.”
She has accomplished an impressive amount.
“I pray a great deal for strength to do what I set out to do,” Paul said.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology at Gallaudet University in Washington and a master’s degree in educational counseling and guidance from Western Maryland College. She also has an educational specialist degree in educational administration and supervision from William and Mary College where, she said, she was the first deaf person to graduate. Paul worked in education for 30 years, mostly as a guidance counselor.
A self-taught photographer, she won “Best in Show” awards at 14 American Daffodil Society national shows for photos of her daffodils.
Believing in the importance of serving others, especially the call from the corporal works of mercy to visit the sick, Paul has immersed herself in volunteer work. She said St. Clare of Assisi’s words, “We become what we love, and who we love shapes what we become,” motivate her to reach out to the community.
She served on the Hampton Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities for 10 years and is presently on the Hampton Animal Control Advisory Committee. For 10 years, she taught new recruits in Hampton’s police department how to interact with and help persons with hearing impairment. In 2009, she taught sign language to students at Christopher Newport University in Newport News for one of their plays.
In 2000, she began providing animal-assisted therapy. Her Shetland sheepdogs — Shiloh, now deceased, Molly, Lothair and Locksley — have been certified through Therapy Dogs International, which requires them to pass a test that evaluates their obedience, socialization and manners, Paul said.
Lothair, who is deaf, brings a bonus; he knows more than 20 words in sign language.
Paul’s dogs have provided comfort and joy to individuals in hospitals, nursing homes, and retirement and rehabilitative facilities. Once a month they help struggling readers ages 6 to 10 and special education students through the Paws to Read program that she created at the Hampton Public Library in 2003.
According to her, children are able to hone their reading skills by reading to the dogs who are “nonjudgmental.”
For many years, Paul and her dogs went to schools and taught students about canines and “the good manners” the children should have when interacting with them. They also worked with the Hampton Clean City Commission to teach children about caring for the environment, she said.
In addition, Lothair and Locksley continue to make weekly visits to inpatients and outpatients at Langley Air Force Base’s hospital and Sentara CarePlex Hospital in Hampton, Paul said.
“I love sharing my dogs,” she said. “The reward I receive is seeing the look of joy and happiness which my dogs give to others.”
When the dogs walk into a hospital room or school, “smiles alight on the faces” of everyone — patients, students, staff and visitors, she said, adding, “They smile and reach out to pet the dogs. It gives them a warm feeling.”
Paul and her dogs have been recognized for their service in animal-assisted therapy. WAVY-TV 10 and its partner organizations recognized Paul and Shiloh for their outstanding volunteer service in Hampton Roads in 2007, and Lothair and Molly received the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association’s Animal Hero Award.
Paul said her faith has carried her through life’s challenges.
She starts each day by praying at breakfast and while walking her dogs. She worships at Sunday Masses by following along with a missal because she cannot hear the songs, prayers or homilies. She thanks God for her many blessings — among them her husband, Philip, who has retired from the Air Force, her friends and her dogs.
“Throughout my life, my faith has never wavered. We must believe that God does have a plan for each of us. We may question it, but it is still his plan,” Paul said. “I have often asked God why I became deaf, but if I had not become deaf, I would very possibly have had a very different life. I hate being deaf, but I made a wonderful life for myself despite that fact.”
Neville writes for The Catholic Virginian, newspaper of the Diocese of Richmond.