Los Altos High student hopes to bring animal therapy to school

Courtesy of Christine Lenz
Los Altos High junior Riley Fujioka, left, works with Animal Assisted Happiness program manager Simone Haroush-van Dam.

Research affirms that the therapeutic effects of animals help reduce stress in humans, and one Los Altos High School student aims to harness such relationships to support her peers.

Junior Riley Fujioka hopes to bring animals to those in need (special needs, health or family challenges) by establishing a branch of an animal therapy charity – Animal Assisted Happiness – at Los Altos High. Her ultimate goal is to enable students to benefit from the calming effects of petting rabbits and guinea pigs during finals week.

Fujioka began working with Animal Assisted Happiness in eighth grade through her work with the National Charity League (NCL). The animal therapy nonprofit is a philanthropy of the NCL Stanford Hills Chapter, of which Fujioka has been a member for five years.

The goals of Animal Assisted Happiness are to rescue small farm animals, teach its youth volunteers about giving back and provide special-needs children with visits from barnyard animals. Animal Assisted Happiness began in the backyard of Vicki Amon-Higa and Peter Higa’s Los Altos home in spring 2009. The group is now located near Full Circle Farm in Sunnyvale.

“I knew that Animal Assisted Happiness would be a great philanthropy to be a part of because it is an approved NCL philanthropy,” Fujioka said. “NCL has taught me many qualities (of) being a leader – stepping up to help others, leading meetings and taking on more responsibility.”

After experiencing the benefits of animal therapy firsthand, Fujioka decided to start a club at Los Altos High that would use animals for stress relief and provide a new outlet for student volunteers.

“The students at Los Altos High become very stressed during finals, and we hear a lot about suicides during this time,” she said. “Hopefully, the animals will be able to calm us down a little.”

Animal Assisted Happiness has not yet brought animals to a school to relieve students’ stress, but has instead focused on helping seniors and those with disabilities and health problems.

“I am hoping this becomes a new part of Animal Assisted Happiness,” Fujioka said of bringing animals to Los Altos High.

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