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Following family footsteps
Kristy Latella’s passion for animal therapy comes from her mother’s occupation
Kristy Latella spends most of her time combining her love for animals with her passion for helping people as an animal therapist.
Her mother, Occupational Therapy professor Donna Latella, is an animal therapist who works around Connecticut to treat her patients with therapeutic animals.
Animal therapy, according to Kristy, can be used by either an occupational therapist, physical therapist or speech therapist to elicit a physical or mental change in their patient.
As a sophomore physical therapy major, Kristy plans to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She began volunteering at a local barn, High Hopes in Old Lyme, to assist her mom in her therapeutic horseback riding lessons.
“It was clearly evident from the very beginning that this was something she wanted to do,” Donna said.
Kristy believes it was a natural fit for her to be working with animals.
“It came with age, it was something I was naturally put into because of my love for animals,” she said.
Kristy and her family own nine pets, eight of which are certified therapy animals. Her family owns four horses, three dogs, one parrot and one pig. Two of the dogs are not therapy animals because they didn’t express interest in preparing for certification.
Kristy’s favorite part of having therapy animals is seeing how they help people.
“When I see the actual animals I helped to train helping others and making them so happy, it’s like a proud mom moment,” she said with a smile. “I love it, I really do.”
An experience Kristy will always remember was with a boy named Colby who has down syndrome.
“I started working with him when he was three years old,” Kristy said. “I worked with him for four years and he never seemed like he had any improvement because he was so young.”
Kristy had to stop working with Colby’s group because of scheduling conflicts, but a few years later she was able to see him again.
“I could really see a difference in him and I think I didn’t see it while he was riding with me because I was working so closely with him,” she said. “It was crazy to think in those six years that he actually came that far and I really think that was because of the riding. When he saw me, his face lit up. He smiled at me, said my name. [Horseback riding] made him more social.”
When she isn’t in class, Kristy spends her time as a volunteer at two different barns for therapeutic horseback riding.
“She is a natural and is always in her element [when volunteering],” Donna said.
Kristy also helps her mother with the Paws and Read program at Savin Rock Elementary School in West Haven, which helps special needs students read by using the comfort of therapy dogs.
Donna started Paws and Read because Kristy had trouble reading as a child.
“My mom started Paws and Read because of me,” Kristy said. “I had trouble reading as a child and she would have the dog sit next to me and when I read to my dog it really helped me.”
Kristy said her mom started this program to help other children as well.
“We go into the special needs class at Savin Rock and we bring the dog into the classroom,” she said. “The dog will sit there and the kids will pet the dog and read to him. It has been proven to really help and we have used three different dogs in that program.”
Kristy said she believes her mother’s mission is her mission as well.
“My mother’s mission is to make people happy by using animals,” she said. “ I couldn’t do my job without animals.”
Kristy loves working with her mother and has learned everything she knows from her mother’s practice.
“It is really nice to have my mom involved because we both share the same passions and we get to work together,” Kristy said. “I am so proud to say she’s my mom. I always have someone to look up to and someone who is always guiding me, teaching me what I want to do as a future career.”
Donna is grateful she gets to work alongside her daughter.
“It makes me really emotional and really, really proud,” Donna said, tearing up. “It is so awesome to have something that you have in common with your child, because often times you see kids go their own way and you don’t have something in common, and this is something that puts us at the same level and we have a bond with.”
Donna said she has many moments she fondly remembers from working with Kristy, but her favorite moment was when Kristy took the step to becoming a volunteer at High Hopes.
“The very first time I saw her working with me in the ring at High Hopes and making that leap into being a volunteer there, it was a proud mommy moment for me,” Donna said. “To see her be able to start doing this and to see that is was something she really, really wanted.”
At Quinnipiac, Kristy helps her mom host a stress relief event on campus during finals week.
“It makes me so happy to see my animals helping other students with stress relief,” Kristy said. “I’m so proud to call them my pets when I see them doing so much good for others.”
Kristy has also inspired her friends to work in the same field as well.
“I was unsure when I first got into the [occupational therapy] program of how much I was going to like it,” sophomore Leah Chamberlin, a friend of Kristy, said. “After meeting Kristy and seeing how many lives she’s changed with her work it really opened my eyes to the importance of [occupational therapy] and how many options there were in the field.”
It’s the day to day successes with her clients that makes Kristy appreciate what she does as a volunteer and what she wants to do as an animal therapist in the future.
“Sometimes I will be like ‘oh, I don’t want to go to the barn right now I have to study’ but then once I’m there I love doing it and I don’t want to leave,” she said.
Chamberlin admires Kristy for her dedication to her work with animal therapy.
“It’s truly remarkable how much passion and dedication she puts into her work with animal therapy,” Chamberlin said. “You can just tell how much she loves it when you hear the way she talks about it and the way she will set aside her busy life as a college student to go work with her riders every chance she gets.”