NAPERVILLE – Kristen Funk has always had a soft spot for animals.
The Algonquin native, 33, who now lives in Batavia with her son, Kade, has turned her passion for pets into a vehicle to help not only unwanted animals, but also children who can benefit from their unconditional devotion.
Funk has worked at shelters throughout the United States, from Miami to New York to San Francisco and Chicago. She earned a master's degree in business administration with a focus on nonprofits, and as humane education manager at the Naperville Area Humane Society, she expanded the organization’s outreach and initiated programs that have become hugely successful, like Homeschool Heroes.
“Homeschool Heroes is an educational program for homeschool-taught children where they can come here and socialize with the animals and learn about pet care and safety,” Funk said. “It’s just another opportunity for them.”
Funk is one of the recipients of Suburban Life Media's Everyday Heroes awards.
In its second year, Homeschool Heroes is so popular that sessions are typically filled to capacity.
Funk also has grown the Paws for Tales literacy program – from 23 to 50 locations – by reaching out to school teachers and administrators in a number of school districts. Paws for Tales is currently in nine school districts, as well as a number of private schools and libraries.
“I believe in the program, and it positively impacts students,” Funk said.
Teams of volunteers bring certified dogs into the schools anywhere from once a month to several times a week to work with children who may need a little extra help with reading.
“They go one on one, and the child has about 15 minutes or so to read to the dog,” Funk said. “It’s not as intimidating as reading in front of a whole class. Some of the kids are in the program for a couple of years, and sometimes the teams follow them from elementary to middle school and high school. They form lasting relationships, and case studies show that it has proven to help. It’s a wonderful thing. Dogs calm the kids down, and they don’t judge.”
Funk also developed Project Pawsitive Future, an animal-assisted therapy program that partners the Naperville Area Humane Society with the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville. For three to five weeks, incarcerated youth at the youth center learn to train a dog.
“Now we’re going into our fifth dog in the program,” Funk said. “The whole goal is to get the dogs canine good citizen certified and then adopted and out in the community.”
Three of the dogs are now certified and volunteering in schools and nursing homes.
“I’ve always loved animals and doing animal-assisted therapy programs," Funk said. “Ten years ago, it was almost unheard of, and now it’s like second nature. I saw the benefits firsthand, what an animal can do in a school, a hospital or a prison. It changes everything. It’s so simple, and it does such wonderful things.”