They later emerged from their house to see large trees snapped into pieces like mere matchsticks. Pieces of debris and the resulting damage from them were everywhere. The house next to theirs was completely destroyed as were 12 other homes in her neighborhood, including four belonging to relatives, Hicks said.
Everyone in Hicks’ neighborhood survived with only minor injuries like cuts and bruises, but members of 13 households were left without places to live that day. Picking up the pieces from the tornadoes that devastated parts of Cleveland that day and watching her neighbors try to do the same would later inspire her to write a book about it—from her dogs’ perspectives.
The event inspired Hicks’ second children's book, “Sit, Stay, Heal: Surviving Life's Storms.” It tells the story of how the dogs went through the traumatic experience and started beginning to overcome it. Her first book, “Character Tales: Learning to Respect the Rules,” recounted a true story of two of the dog disobeying their owners and getting lost. The first book was meant to teach children the importance of respecting authority. However, she said the second book was the one that taught her as the author how to cope with what the tornadoes left behind.
“For me, it was part healing,” Hicks said of the writing process. “I wanted something good to come from the devastation.”
Hicks had founded a nonprofit organization in 2008 called Helping Paws Healing Hearts that uses therapy dogs to help children learn character lessons and assist with one-on-one counseling sessions of children dealing with a variety of issues. She takes her three dogs, all three of which she and her husband adopted from animal shelters, to schools, after-school programs and other places in need ot the healing canine programs.
At the time the tornadoes hit, Hicks was working as a school counselor at Blue Springs Elementary School, which was badly damaged. The children who attended that school had to split up and begin attending the Waterville and Black Fox elementary schools. She then split her own work time between the two schools and worked with some children who had been badly traumatized by the tornadoes.
Many of the children she worked with had been greatly affected by the storms because they had been living in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, Hicks said. But she had her own problems to deal with when she went back to her own home each day. To this day, the dogs she took to school with her to help children talk about their problems still get spooked at the slightest thunderstorm.
Hicks is currently the director of Coordinated School Health at Cleveland City Schools, and she refers to her dogs as her “co-workers.” Her 9-year-old dogs Larry and Daryl and her 1-year-old dog Addie assist with everything from lessons on how to play and stay active, to summer camps for children dealing with grief from losing family members.
She said she got the idea for her organization back in 2008 after she took her dogs to work with her and found that the dogs helped children relax and be more willing to talk through whatever was bothering them.
“As a school counselor I kept encountering kids with serious problems,” Hicks said. “I was a huge proponent of pet therapy.”
One day, she worked with a little boy who refused to respond to anyone who spoke to him and would do nothing but sit curled up in a chair. After trying to speak with him for a while, she got the idea of seeing if he would interact with Larry and Daryl. She asked for permission to go get the dogs and bring them back to school, and the principal and the boy's teacher both said yes.
When she got back with the dogs, the boy dropped to the floor and began to pet them. After that, he began to talk to them about his problems with Hicks still there. That opened the door for her to talk with the boy herself, she said.
She began to research pet therapy and found that other school counselors had seen many positive results as well. After finding a lot more research touting the benefits of using pet therapy in schools, she presented her findings to the Cleveland City School Board and asked if she could begin incorporating pet therapy with her work regularly. They approved, and she began bringing the dogs to school with her on Fridays.
The school’s overall atmosphere changed when the dogs were around, Hicks said. She explained that kids who had sometimes had truancy problems were eager to attend school on Fridays, and the overall morale among the students and teachers improved those days.
Hicks later offered Helping Paws Healing Hearts’ programs to Bradley County schools as well. At the time, Hicks was the only person who was using pet therapy in either Cleveland City Schools or Bradley County Schools, she said.
“Through that, I began to see how much the kids loved the dogs, so I wrote my first children's book,” Hicks said.
Since the 2011 tornadoes and their deadly hit-and-run, Hicks and her husband have been able to rebuild, and she said she hopes others have been able to do the same.
They recently experienced a new beginning of a different sort as well. Less than two months ago, they became the parents of their first child, a baby girl named Mary Elizabeth Grace.
Hicks said the birth of her daughter could further motivate her to continue writing children's books. Either way, the Cleveland native's goals remain the same. She wants to continue to give back to the town she has known since she was a child herself.
When she first started work as a school counselor and later founded her organization, Helping Paws Healing Hearts, Hicks committed herself to helping the children she encounters on her healing visits. She has also learned that people who try to help people overcome trauma are not immune from experiencing trauma themselves.
“I think sometimes you can help people when you go through things,” Hicks said. “I'm glad I've been able to impact the community here — where I grew up.”
The three wagging tails of her co-workers said they agreed with that sentiment.
She had “Sit, Stay, Heal” published with money from a grant awarded to her organization by the Rotary Club of Cleveland, and she was able to distribute free copies to children at schools in Cleveland and Chattanooga not too long after the tornadoes hit. She hopes the story of her dogs’ experiences helped some of the children see that they could overcome their own issues too.
Hicks now makes other copies of the books available for donations to Helping Paws Healing Hearts at the Museum Center at Five Points store and at www.helpingpawshealinghearts.com.