While Danny Rendon was enrolled in a summer session at Beechwood School in Menlo Park, his mother, Patricia, noticed something strange.
Danny started waking up earlier than usual, eager to take the family's French poodle, Mimi, out for a walk.
"I didn't know what was happening," Patricia Rendon said. "I was thinking about it and putting everything together and said: 'Oh, wait a minute. That's why.'"
What Rendon realized was that her son was participating in the Palo Alto Humane Society's pilot program at Beechwood, the Critter Club. During five once-a-week sessions, the Humane Society's volunteers taught humane animal treatment to the third-graders in Mary-Eileen Gallagher's classroom. To the children's enjoyment, that involved bringing into the classroom a cat, a rabbit and a dog named Riley, Molly and Rookie, respectively.
The program began when Humane Society volunteers noticed large numbers of stray cats in the neighborhoods surrounding Beechwood earlier this year, said Leonor Delgado, a Humane Society educator. She added that unleashed pit bulls were found in the streets, and birds were left outside in small cages.
The trend of loose animals "was right in the vicinity and actually came into Beechwood," said Delgado, who taught four of the five education sessions. "We were aware that the kids knew about it."
When Delgado held the pilot program's fifth and final session in August, she asked the room filled with kids: "How many of you have seen stray kittens here?"
As the 20 or more kids sat on the ground in neat rows wearing matching gray shirts with "PAHS Critter Club at Beechwood School" emblazoned on them, all raised their hands.
Because of the stray animals around Beechwood, the organization chose the school for the pilot program, which began July 1. Educators taught the children everything from where to take stray cats and how to approach dogs to bird safety and what a rabbit's ideal home environment is. All this happened, Delgado said, with the financial assistance of the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund.
"The financial support gave us an impetus," she said of the $1,500 Holiday Fund grant. "We run on a very tight budget. We needed to get some help, some recognition."
Delgado said the funding went towards education materials, take-home information, teachers and T-shirts.
"Critter Club serves as a tool for teaching children about responsibility for community animal care and for reaching their parents and family members," said Carole Hyde, director of Palo Alto Humane Society.
The goal, she added, is to assess the pilot program and then expand the program, hopefully with help from the Holiday Fund.
"The most logical focus of expansion of the program would be into other schools, specifically public schools in the area," Delgado said. "Ideally, we would expand our program to include sessions about wildlife, focusing on urban encroachment into habitats native to wild animals and ways to treat wildlife humanely and live in harmony with all the animals in our communities."
When Gallagher, the third-graders' teacher, thought back to the summer sessions with Palo Alto Humane Society, she immediately recalled a moment when all the kids sat in a large circle in her classroom and a bunny was let loose in the middle.
"Even when they are older, I think they'll always remember this little bunny that came into their classroom and hopped around and licked their hands and let them be a friend," she said. "A hands-on educational experience is something a child will never forget. (Compared to) a worksheet, the value is all in hands-on."
Gallagher said she also found that the program emphasized transforming the students into teachers themselves, sending them home with fliers and information for their family members.
"It's a really empowering thing for them to be educators in their own families and to share everything that they are learning," she said.
Although the Humane Society has offered similar education programs to students across the Bay Area, Delgado said that Critter Club experimented with the goal of reaching out to the students' families and concerned Beechwood neighbors.
"Our goal was to make everyone familiar with proper care and humane treatment of their household pets and, more importantly, to draw the community's attention to the plight of stray and abandoned animals and ways in which the community could intervene to help these animals," Delgado said. The program focused mainly on the proper socialization and treatment of dogs and the "trap-neuter-return" technique of treating abandoned community cats.
Beechwood's principal, David Laurance, found great enthusiasm among his students about the program, as he remembered them running up to him with a rush of details about the animals in their classroom.
"It's easy to say to children, 'We want you to be kind to others,'" he said. "But, like all of us, they need a model." Laurance said the model was Delgado and the others at the Humane Society who taught the third-graders some crucial life lessons.
"Human beings are not allowed to trample over this planet any way that they choose," he said. "Every living thing deserves respect. Again, it's easy to say that but to take it to the next step and bring in people who are actually living that helps get our kids to where we want them to be as adults."