ALACHUA COUNTY, Fla. - Catherine, a miniature horse named after a girl killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., walked into the Alachua County Library on Thursday as a way to encourage kids to read over the summer.
"They get to interact with a story, they get to hear from an author, and then they pet the horse afterwards. So it's like a character is coming out of the book," said Jorge Garcia-Bengochea, of Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses.
The horses are part of the local nonprofit organization and they recently returned from a trip to Oklahoma, where tornadoes have devastated communities.
"Some of the kids had lost friends at other schools," Garcia-Bengochea said. "One kid witnessed a child hit by a board, and it sounded like the child was killed."
Gentle Carousel was asked to bring the little horses up to help kids who survived last month's tornado when all of a sudden the second tornado hit, the largest tornado in world history.
"You just saw a lot of black and you could see the sky getting darker and darker, and you could start to see some debris moving around behind, and that's when you get nervous, wondering if the traffic is just going to get out of the way," Garcia-Bengochea said.
He said a lot of people died in accidents on the highway trying to get out.
But Gentle Carousel volunteers and their four-legged friends escaped just in time and returned right away to find the devastation, their hotel severely damaged, and a lot people who needed their help, like one first-grader whose dad raced to her rescue.
"He was rushing to the school to pick up his daughter," Garcia-Bengochea said. "He saw the tornado come through and just annihilate Briarwood Elementary School and just was fearful that he had just witnessed his daughter's school destroyed. Fortunately, he was able to find her, rescue her, and with other children, pull them out of the wreckage."
Now the horses are back to work at home.
They were a hit with the kids, a way to make them smile on an ordinary day or on the worst of days.
"They bring some enjoyment, they're able to just allow them to think of something different than the tragedy or the illness or the storm or something like that," Garcia-Bengochea said.
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