Students displaced from Riebli Elementary in Santa Rosa soothed by therapy dogs, mini-horse

Charlotte Rossini, and Everett Self say hello to a therapy pony at San Miguel Elementary School, Tuesday Nov. 7, 2017. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2017


More than one-quarter of John B. Riebli Elementary School’s 456 students lost their homes in the firestorm that ripped across Santa Rosa in the early hours of Oct. 9.

The elementary school, spared by the flames, stands alone — an island amid the blackened devastation that now marks that neighborhood. Shuttered indefinitely because of the toxic ash that surrounds the elementary school, its students were displaced not just from their homes but also from their daily schedules and routines. More than half were sent to the San Miguel Elementary School campus. It was there Tuesday morning, inside a room meant to house kids in daycare, that Susan Gonyo’s uprooted Riebli fourth-graders got to spend some time with a bevy of therapy animals in town from the Sacramento area, where they work with Sutter Hospital patients.

In all, seven students in the 29-student class lost homes in the fire.

Among them was 10-year-old Reagan Birk, who was particularly taken with Lilly, a 6-year-old American miniature horse — a fact Birk’s best friend, Sierra Reis, 9, predicted outright.

“Reagan, look, it’s a pony!” Reis shrieked upon Lilly’s entrance.

Birk squealed in agreement, clapping her hands as the black miniature horse, wearing a hot pink bridle and green vest emblazoned with “Hooves On-Call” clip-clopped into the classroom.

Birk attributed her affinity for the horse to her interest in unicorns and Lilly’s tiny rainbow shoes, meant for the stuffed animals sold at Build-A-Bear Workshop, which help her hooves find traction on linoleum hospital floors. The shoes, Birk said, undoubtedly contributed to Lilly’s unicorn likeness.

“What if there was a horn on it?” Birk said of the horse. “Oh my gosh, I love unicorns so much. I would faint if I saw a unicorn.”

Next up on the girls’ playlist, as it were, was Mickey the Cavalier King Charles spaniel, whose handler Kathy Montgomery spearheaded the whole visit. The fluffy chestnut-and-white dog happily wagged his tail as no fewer than five kids squeezed close for a cuddle.

“What these animals do is they go into the hospitals and they get in the beds with the patients,” Montgomery said. “And they’ll visit with the families who are visiting, and they visit with the staff, and that helps kind of relieve stress. It kind of makes the room lighter, kind of like when we walked in everyone was like, ‘Yay!’ The same thing happens when we walk in the hospital.”

Everett Self, 9, who lost his home in the blaze, loved the visit.

He’s been OK, he said, since having to leave his home, but the transition from Riebli to San Miguel has been a bit strange. The play structures are different, and they’re not in their regular classroom, which means all the furniture and supplies are different.

Therapy animals have visited the San Miguel campus a number of times since the fires, which Self has liked.

“It makes people feel like they’re — like they feel a little bit safer,” he said. “They want to pet the dogs because they feel a little bit happier.”

That’s something Gonyo, their teacher, knows.

“They were glad to be back (in class),” Gonyo said. “However I know it is so hard for a child who lost their home to also not be in their classroom. They are emotional.

“But the kids are getting used to it. It’s just lots of hugs.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or On Twitter @SeaWarren.