GULFPORT -- South Mississippi dogs are about to embark on a new journey.
Visiting Pet Teams of South Mississippi presented 11 new teams and 11 re-registered teams in a special ceremony at the eighth annual pet therapy graduation at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport on Saturday.
Accompanied by their owners, dogs donned graduation caps and accepted certificates. A cake, punch and Milk Bone reception followed.
Visiting Pet Teams of South Mississippi is a nonprofit organization in which volunteers and their registered therapy dogs participate in pet-assisted activities and therapy.
The teams visit people in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, adult day cares and libraries in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties.
"After Hurricane Katrina, I had the idea that we really needed to reach out to our community because we were really hurting," said Patsy Thomas, founder and board president.
"I had my therapy dogs, and I thought we needed more dogs like that to go out and give love to people in area hospitals and nursing homes.
"We wear yellow, which means when we visit people, we want to have a good attitude. We want to bring the sunshine to them."
Three volunteers of the year were spotlighted at the ceremony.
Among those recognized was Julene Mayewski and her therapy dogs Louie and Pablo.
"She utilizes her therapy dogs within her professional career as a social worker," Thomas said. "She tells me it relaxes the children as they open up to her in her cases."
Volunteers of the Year Michael Bowin and Pepper were recognized as the first team members to visit hospice patients.
"They love to visit Dixie White House Nursing Home and Garden Park Hospital," Thomas said.
Mary Pecoul and her dogs Abby and Bella received the Presidential Volunteer Service Award. Since beginning the program in 2010, Pecoul and her dogs have logged in 347 hours of service, which is almost half of the group's total for the year.
She accomplishes this by taking one dog to work a morning shift of service while her husband, Stanley, takes the other dog for the afternoon shift.
"We want to make sure that our group plays a small part in loving the community," Thomas said.