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A tail of hope, Portage’s ‘Barnabas’ visits tornado victims

Rev. Tim Engel Holy Cross Lutheran Church Portage smiles as child hugs his dog Barnabas shelter Moore OK. Engel traveled

Rev. Tim Engel, of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Portage, smiles as a child hugs his dog Barnabas in a shelter in Moore, OK. Engel traveled to the tornado ravaged area with the three year-old golden retriever as part of a team of volunteers trying to bring comfort to the victims of Monday's tornado. | Provided photo~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 25, 2013 6:34AM



A Portage Lutheran minister and a golden retriever named Barnabas are part of a team of volunteers offering comfort to victims of Monday’s killer tornado in Oklahoma.

The Rev. Tim Engel, pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church on U.S. 6, and Barnabas, a 3-year-old retriever, left Portage Tuesday with the Lutheran Church Charities, the sponsor of K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, based in Addison, Ill.

On Wednesday morning, the group of six trained service dogs and seven adults from Indiana and Illinois, visited ravaged neighborhoods in Moore, which suffered the most devastation from the EF-5 tornado that killed 24 people and leveled an elementary school.

“We saw neighborhoods utterly destroyed,” said Engel. “Those homes represent families whose homes have been lost... You see children’s toys blown across front lawns.”

They also visited a hospital where Engel said they met the teacher who sheltered three children as the twister touched down at Plaza Towers Elementary. Engel said the children survived and the teacher suffered bruises and other injuries.

Typically, Engel said people find comfort in touching the gentle dogs while talking about and sharing what they’ve experienced.

Engel said authorities have sealed off the worst-hit area in Moore and entrants must be screened.

The group also visited the Children’s Hospital at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center in Oklahoma City. They planned to go to the University of Oklahoma on Thursday where many families have sought refuge.

They were invited to Oklahoma by Messiah Lutheran Church in Oklahoma City.

Besides aiding tornado victims, the dogs also minister to first responders.

“We know they have a benefit to share,” Engel said of the dogs.

Engel said Barnabas is the oldest of the six dogs on the mission. The youngest is nine months old. He said Barnabas or “Barney,” as kids call him, is a biblical name referring to Barnabas, a missionary partner with St. Paul. “The name itself means ‘encourager,’ ” he said. Barnabas is a Tulsa native, raised on a horse ranch, Engel said. “I don’t know that he realizes that, he’s happy to be here,” said Engel.

Just in the past seven months, Barnabas and Engel have traveled to New Jersey and New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and to Newtown, Conn., where they met children affected by the Sandy Hook massacre.

“That was different than the other disasters,” Engel said of Sandy Hook. “All the buildings were intact, the power was on but people were just as devastated, if not more.”

While Engel serves as Barnabas’ handler, the dog lives with another Holy Cross parishioner. They’ll make the return trip home Sunday.

“He lives with another family at our church and I pick him up for work every day,” Engel said.

Learn more about the comfort dog program: www.lutheranchurchcharities.org.



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