Connections across Time

  • Shared Living: Then and Now
  • The Role of Therapy and Service Dogs

Exhibition Thematic Section: Connections across Time

Geel, Belgium - The City of Saint Dymphna

Shared Living: Then and Now

Francesca Reyes, Student, Fitchburg State University

With developmental or psychiatric disabilities comes a lot of accompanying concerns. Common issues many people with disabilities face include poor health, higher mortality, increased unemployment, higher levels of isolation and homelessness, and higher levels of involvement in crime and violent crime against them: all daunting issues that are sadly their reality. But what if there was a place people with developmental or psychiatric disabilities could go and live together in relative peace? A place where they could fit in and be seen as a valuable part of the community? In the Middle Ages there was a town that practiced exactly that. Put on the map because of the sad story of Saint Dympna, Geel, Belgium has been and still is a place people with mental disabilities can go and be accepted. Since then, this model has been developed by other programs that find welcoming homes who are willing to take in people with disabilities and help them be a part of a society that will accept and care for them.

Saint Dymphna is the patron saint of mental health. She was born to a pagan king and a Christian mother some time during the seventh century in Ireland. Yet, even though she was a princess, her life was anything but the royal image many would picture. When Dymphna was about fourteen years old her mother passed away, sending her father into a mental collapse. Before he truly lost his mind the king's royal court convinced him to remarry. With the king still grieving he only wanted someone as gorgeous as his wife, causing him to turn to his daughter as his bride who was a picture perfect image of her mother. As Dymphna was a devoted Christian and having taken a vow of chastity she found this idea repulsive. While her father was trying to force her into marriage, she was able to stall him long enough to run away to the city of Geel. Although she did reach her destination her father and some of his men followed Dymphna to her new city. The king ordered his men to kill his daughter but his men could not bring themselves to do so, forcing the king himself to kill his own daughter. After Dymphna’s death, miracles started to happen in Geel. People who had mental health issues seemed to report alleviation. This news spread and soon people who were mentally disabled would come to Geel to be healed. Yet once these people got there they were often left by their caregivers, leading the city to build a hospital. Soon the hospital was overflowing with patients, and the city leader asked the townspeople to begin to house the disabled. The townspeople were more than happy to accomodate and allowed the travellers to live in their houses and become a part of their families.

Given this story is from the seventh century, it is quite remarkable. The most outstanding part is that to this day the townspeople of Geel continue to take in those with mental health issues so they are able to live in an accepting community. Nowadays, people who go to Geel aren't going to be healed by saint Dymphna, but be welcomed with open arms, to a place with people who will accept them and help them live a happy and free life.   The people who travel to Geel are not seen as patients but as guests or boarders and treated with kindness and respect.

Although Geel will always be special with its history, they are not the only place where people can take in others with disabilities to live with them. One organization called Open Skies helps connect and organize ways for people to connect in a similar way. Open Skies’ mission states: “by blending best practices with the power of community, we partner with individuals and families to see beyond and live beyond perceived limitations to pursue fulfilling lives” (Rice and Collari). They have a vast variety of areas they service such as; Children and Families, Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, Acquired Brain Injury, Substance Use, Autism, Housing and Homelessness Assistance, LGBTQ+ Youth, Supported Employment & Education, Community Membership, and Evidence-Based Practices Training & Consultation. Their three wishes are for their participants to have good health, happiness, and longevity.

Their program that resembles historical Geel is their shared living program. The Shared Living programs “allow adults with disabilities to become part of a host family” ("Shared Living"). This allows the person who has disabilities to truly be a part of a family and participate in responsibilities and the different benefits that sharing a household entails. By bringing in adults with disabilities the host family is allowing them to “connect with the wider community and provide the necessary personal assistance and training” ("Shared Living"). Even if the host family is struggling, the “Open Sky’s visiting nurses and service coordinators stand ready to provide expert assistance when necessary” ("Shared Living"). One benefit the host family would receive, other than the experience to live with another individual, would be a generous tax-free stipend each month. However not everyone can participate in this service. There are some eligibility requirements. First, a host family must have a high school diploma or equivalent. They recommend experience in human services and advocating for people with developmental and psychiatric disabilities, but it is not required. A valid driver's license and reliable transportation is also needed. Finally the host family would need to participate in a satisfactory background check before being eligible to take a person in.

People with severe disabilities tend to be marginalized for not always being able to fit into social norms. Yet, when others take in these people and show them acceptance and compassion, it not only helps the person with disabilities realize they deserve just as much love and affection as everyone else but also could help others who do not have major disabilities realize that these people are human too and should not be looked down upon or pushed away. With this positive behavior and lifestyle modeled by the townspeople of Geel and participants in Shared Lives, we still need to reflect on how many still stigmatize people with a disability or a mental illness. We as humankind should stop judging people. We need to learn to be patient and understanding of those in situations that differ from our own. We all have our different ways we function; some are more socially acceptable than others. The story of Dymphna and the city of Geel as well as the mission of Open Skies can both be used as a model for how to respect those with mental disability.

Rice, Dennis, and Cristi Collari. “Fitchburg State University - Student Visit.” Honors English II , 25 Feb. 2020, Fitchburg State University. Class Presentation.

“Shared Living.” Open Sky Community Services,

“St. Dymphna - Saints & Angels.” Catholic Online,

Thériault, Anne. “The City with a Radical Approach to Mental Illness.” Broadview Magazine, 17 Sept. 2019,

Profile: Dr. Joann Nichols, Faculty, and Beauty the Therapy Dog

The Role of Therapy and Service Dogs

Tariq Thomas, Student, Fitchburg State University

Most people don’t know the differences between a service dog and a therapy dog. While service and therapy dogs have their similarities, they also have significant differences. According to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, service dogs are well-trained dogs that assist people with disabilities. They state: “Service dogs are trained to perform tasks and to do work that eases their handler’s disabilities. Working as part of a team with their disadvantaged partners, service dogs help them attain safety and independence.”  Therapy dogs, compared to service dogs, undergo similar training. However, their job is to provide affection, comfort, and support to those who are in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, libraries, hospices, and disaster areas. The Alliance states that “Therapy dogs also receive training, but they have a completely different type of job from service dogs. Their responsibilities are to provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers. These dogs have stable temperatures and friendly, easy-going personalities.” Even though they have disparate roles, both service and therapy dogs contribute greatly to their respective owners.

Unknown to most people, service dogs have existed for a long time (see, for instance, this thirteenth-century manuscript image). Morris Frank, who was blind after being in an accident, received a service dog named Buddy in 1927. Trained by an American writer named Dorothy Eustis, Buddy successfully guided his new owner through the busy streets of New York City. The positive reception surrounding the use of service dogs resulted in the formation of a more organized service dog training program. Interestingly, the idea of using service dogs to guide the blind originated from the Romans: “But Dorothy Eustis wasn’t the first person to train canines as guide dogs, and Morris Frank wasn’t the first blind person to use a dog to guide him. The ancient Romans had already figured out that a guide dog could be trained to restore a blind person’s independence” (Cole).

Therapy dogs weren’t introduced to the public as such until later on in the twentieth century. During World War II, a Yorkshire Terrier whose name was Smoky would soon become the world’s first official therapy dog. Smoky had an intriguing backstory. In 1944, she was found in an abandoned foxhole on the island nation of New Guinea. Smoky was later adopted by a man named Bill Wynne, who quickly discovered that his newest companion had an atypical taste for adventure. Although she was just a dog, Smoky played a small, but essential role during the war: “Smoky’s most famous feat was crawling through a tiny 70-foot long culvert on a captured Japanese island, hauling a communication cable, sparing GIs from having to drag it above ground, and be exposed to enemy sniper fire” (“Smokey - World War II Hero Dog Monument”). After the conclusion of World War II, Smoky began her career as a therapy dog by visiting the wounded GIs in hospitals. She later moved with Bill Wynne to Cleveland, Ohio. Even though she passed away in the year 1957, a monument of Smoky was unveiled on Veteran’s Day in honor of her bravery: “In 2005, the Smoky and Dogs of All Wars monument was unveiled on Veteran’s Day, sculpted by Susan Bahary. It’s a life-size bronze of a smiling Smoky sitting inside a GI helmet atop a polished granite pedestal that entombs her remains. A nearby information plaque lists other famous war dogs -- Stubby, Nemo, Caesar, Chips -- all worthy, but none with the star power of Smoky” (“Smokey - World War II Hero Dog Monument”).

Fast-forwarding to the twenty-first century, we are seeing therapy and service dogs play a more active role in the lives of people with disabilities and people without disabilities. For example, a service dog named Sully is famous for being the loyal pet of late U.S. President, George H.W. Bush. After his former master’s death on November 30th, 2018, Sully went from being a service dog to being a therapy dog: “In his new role as a hospital ‘foreman’ in a Walter Reed facility outside of Washington, Sully’s duties are to provide support, comfort, and cheer to wounded veterans, their families, and facility staff, thus reducing stress and increasing positive feelings, the medical center said” (Jackson). Sully isn’t the only therapy dog in America who’s changing lives. Closer to home, at Fitchburg State University, a therapy dog named Beauty has been receiving a lot of attention in recent years. Beauty, along with her owner Dr. Joann Nichols, works at the McKay Complex building, where she interacts with children and helps them to improve their literacy skills. According to Nichols, there are kids in public schools who are “culturally disadvantaged,” which means that they come from various demographics where there is no real emphasis on reading at home. Despite these kids being at a "disadvantage," Beauty serves as an advantage for them. Her presence builds up confidence within the children when they read out loud. The reason for this is because reading to dogs takes the pressure off of a child when he or she stumbles. Francine Alexander, the chief academic officer at Scholastic Corporation, said: “Kids have to practice, practice, practice to be good readers. And yet, when you’re practicing, if you make a mistake, it can feel risky and uncomfortable. But if you’re practicing with a dog, you don’t mind making a mistake.” (Claiborne and Brundige)

Dogs are mankind’s greatest helpers. They’re loyal, energetic, optimistic, and caring. There are thousands of stories that talk about the life-changing benefits of having a dog. Dogs like Buddy, Smoky, Sully, and Beauty have been a positive influence on both their respective owners and people in public. Even though their roles were all different, they created reputations for themselves that will never be forgotten.

Claiborne, Ron and Brundige, Wendy, "Study: Reading To Dogs Helps Children Learn To Read." ABC News, 18 Aug. 2010,

Cole, Linda. “Who Was the First Person to Use a Guide Dog?” CANIDAE,5 June 2017,

“Difference Between a Therapy Dog vs a Service Dog.” Alliance of Therapy Dogs, 12 Mar. 2017,

Jackson, Katharine. “George H.W. Bush's Service Dog, Sully, Has a New Job.” Business Insider,28 Feb. 2019,

“Smoky - World War II Hero Dog Monument, Cleveland, Ohio.” Roadside America,17 Apr. 2020,