CHARLESTON -- A more fluffy, four-legged member was added to the Immanuel Lutheran Church earlier this month.
Rachel, a 19-month-old golden retriever, has finally made her way down to Charleston to serve as the star in the church's comfort dog ministry.
After eight weeks of training, Rachel is set on a mission as a comfort dog to de-stress people and be the cuddliest thing in the room.
When she is off-duty, she is playful and social especially with other dogs, like many other puppies.
But when adorned in her blue vest embroidered with her name and simple directive for those she meets ("Please pet me"), Rachel is focused and ready to ease angst and comfort humans.
One thing is clear, though: "Stranger" is is not really a concept for the pup, especially with children. Joelyn Akers, "Top Dog" or lead handler for the dog, said Rachel is drawn to children. Across the church, her ears will perk up when children come in.
To the casual observer, a first-time interaction with Rachel would look more like longtime friends embracing than a first-time meeting.
Currently, Rachel has largely served as greeter within the church, but she has made her way out into the community, de-stressing Eastern Illinois University and Charleston High School students before final exams.
"One of the (high school) girls said, 'I wish you could come in next to me while I am taking my test,'" said Tom Akers, a handler and husband of Joelyn.
More notably, Rachel made her crisis debut in the aftermath of the Taylorville tornado, providing comfort to those in need in that area.
The church's comfort dog ministry is a free service provided by Immanuel Lutheran, but they have to be invited.
Joelyn encourages people to invite Rachel to provide that comfort to them. Comfort dogs are often invited to nursing homes, hospitals, and schools, but Joelyn noted Rachel can provide support in seemingly endless settings.
This is a ministry the church has sought to get into for years. The Rev. Ken Hoover said he saw the powerful connections that can be and have been made with comfort dogs at a conference years back.
"The dog serves as a bridge to make a connection," Hoover said. "We firmly believe that God and spiritual connection is a part of all of us, and this provides us a bridge to engage in that conversation."
In the face of tragedy it has also been documented the meaningful, however brief, impact a comfort dog has on those in pain like the victims and families connected to the slew of mass shootings across the country.
On a smaller scale, Hoover witnessed first hand the calming nature of these dogs. As part of training, Hoover had to take Rachel out across a Chicago community, and in one instance the dog both excited and calmed a wheelchair bound individual with special needs almost instantly.
He said the dog propped her head gently on the individual's lap, and he could sense a calmness wash over the individual.
"It validated it all," Hoover said of the experience.
It was a three-year-long process with the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry to get the dog. With grants from Charleston Charitable Foundation and the Illinois district of the Lutheran Women's Missionary League and an OK from the ministry, they now have Rachel.
On each trip out into the community, Rachel will have an entourage of two to three handlers and will serve to comfort those who might need a little dog positivity.
Eight handlers have been trained in the church with more expected to help soon.