'It’s better to be together than apart': Local service dogs and handlers at Spartan Sunday
When Claire Bacarella returned to Michigan State University last weekend, she was greeted by a familiar face: Monroe therapy dog Link.
Bacarella, 19, of Monroe is a freshman at MSU and was on campus during the Feb. 13 shooting that killed two students and wounded five others.
“I was barricaded in my dorm, Akers Hall, at the time of the shooting. I went home to Monroe the day after and came back to campus Sunday and went directly to the Spartan Sunday event,” Bacarella said.
Bacarella and her boyfriend, Cameron Merrill of Seneca Township, were two of thousands who attended Spartan Sunday, held Feb. 19 on the East Lansing campus. MSU has 50,000 students.
Organized quickly by six MSU alumni, Spartan Sunday offered students a chance to talk with therapists, visit therapy dogs and adjust to life back on campus following the tragedy. Much of that support continued Monday, when classes resumed.
Four Monroe County dog handlers and their animals were among those offering support.
“It was a fantastic event, huge in scope, put together in so little time, I knew this was an event we would love to be a part of,” Monroe’s Cheryl Wassus said. “As a proud Spartan alumni, I am glad to see the outpouring from the community to help the students."
Wassus and her friend, Monroe’s Donna Cherba, brought Wassus’ two Bernese mountain dogs, Link and Ella B.
Other area dog handlers who attended were Stephanie Suydam and her black Lab, Brody; Mary Goode and her schnauzer mix, Colby Jack; and Maggie Pasko and her Lhasa apso, Cooper.
“The event went from 1 to 4 p.m., and we were there for the duration, stationed right outside of the football stadium. The dogs gave lots of love and hugs,” Wassus said.
Wassus is the coordinator of local Chapter No. 307 of Therapy Dogs International. Her dog, Link, is 7 years old and has gone on many visits.
“He has over 300 visits so far, from the courtroom, schools, nursing homes, to name a few,” Wassus’ husband, Kenneth, said.
Many other service dogs and their handlers also attended Spartan Sunday.
“There had to have been at least 100 service dogs on campus, and MSU continued to have therapy dogs across different locations on campus all week,” Bacarella said. "I don't think I've ever pet so many different dogs in one day. The service dogs were amazing, and I appreciate everyone who brought them. Especially knowing that people came from all over. I even met one of the dogs, Link, previously at an event at Monroe County Community College. It was so nice to see a familiar furry face."
Bacarella said Spartan Sunday was just what she needed.
“It was just the thing I needed to lift my spirits coming back to campus. It was amazing to see a community rally together in a time of need," she said. "Strangers were giving hugs, and students were coming together in a way I've never seen. By the end of the event, I had a bag full of positive messages and snacks. But it's not all the free goodies I took away from Spartan Sunday, it's the feeling of community, and the hope that we might one day be whole again."
Wassus said Spartan Sunday was emotional but healing.
“The outpouring from the community was incredible. There were tables everywhere with cards, flowers, care packages, you name it. There were also Mom Hugs. It was an emotional day, but the bright sunny weather and all of the Spartan community that came together to help students returning to campus was heartwarming. It was my privilege to attend,” Wassus said.
A 2022 graduate of MCCC and Monroe County Middle College, Bacarella is a journalism major at MSU. She is minoring in broadcast journalism.
She and the other students returned to classes on Monday.
“I think students are worried to go back to classes today,” Bacarella said Monday morning. “I know my first class was canceled, and in my other class, we are just going to come together and eat pizza and talk about what happened. The idea is that it’s better to be together than apart right now.”