Pets get loved—and staff get opportunities—at a doggy day care in Columbus, Ohio.

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Pathways to Independence
Pathways to Independence of Central Ohio
| Credit: Courtesy of PATHWAYS TO INDEPENDENCE OF CENTRAL OHIO

In the classroom, special education teacher Stephanie Sanzo and educational assistant Megan Ramage had seen how therapy dogs improved their students' communication and development. So in 2015, they launched Pathways to Independence of Central Ohio. Now one of the top-rated doggy day cares in Columbus, Pathways employs adults with disabilities, as well as five interns, to wrangle and groom up to 80 dogs daily. Maria Rudy, one of the Pathways employees who has Down syndrome, has found a lasting purpose—and lots of slobbery kisses and wagging tails—in her work here.

Maria Rudy
Maria Rudy
| Credit: Courtesy of PATHWAYS TO INDEPENDENCE OF CENTRAL OHIO

Pathways to Independence provides day care services as well as boarding and grooming. Maria Rudy, 24, is one of Pathways' longtime employees and has been nicknamed The Dog Whisperer.

"When Maria walks in, all of the dogs get so excited," Ramage says. "They feel her complete and unconditional love. To see the joy between the kids and dogs is really something."

Like many of the current employees at Pathways, Rudy was once a student of Ramage's. Pathways provides young adults with opportunities for employment and transition after graduation. Their work at the daycare enables them to enrich their own lives as well as the community.

"Maria doesn't have the strongest communications skills," says her mother, Gayle Gottlieb. "Because the dogs have no expectations for how she's supposed to act or what she's supposed to say, her work with them has really improved her confidence and ability to interact with people."