A new program at the Willamette Valley Humane Society will allow kids aged 5- 11 to read to the shelter residents. (Courtesy/Willamette Valley Humane Society)

Soon, the dogs and cats awaiting a forever home at the Willamette Humane Society will have fledgling storytellers to keep them company.

Picture a pajama-clad elementary schooler reading "Sticky the Kitty: A Sticky Situation” aloud while a tabby purrs in her crate.

The new program, called Shelter Storytime, starts at the Salem shelter Sept. 15.

Willamette Humane Society was awarded a $1,500 grant from the nonprofit group Athletes for Animals last year and is using the money to get the reading program going.

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Candalynn Johnson, an education and outreach coordinator at the shelter, said reading benefits both the kids and the animals. The animals get individual interaction that can reduce stress and anxiety, and the kids can improve their reading in front of a nonjudgmental audience.

Johnson said the dogs and cats will be inside their kennel when the kids are reading to them. Families have to attend a $5 safety orientation that goes over how to properly interact with animals.

Once they learn how to be safe at the shelter, kids can attend as many free reading sessions as they want, and get prizes for attending multiple times.

“This is the best way that they can help animals at such a young age,” Johnson said.

So far, six kids have signed up.

“I think a lot of families have been waiting for us specifically to open some kind of program for younger kiddos,” Johnson said.

Currently, volunteers have to be at least 12 years old to help out at the shelter, and come with a parent or guardian. Johnson said there wasn’t much for the younger volunteers to do, besides making cat toys or running donation drives at their school.

“Shelter Storytime really filled that need,” she said. 

The shelter provides the books, plus treats and toys for the animals.

During the shelter’s summer camp, reading to the pets is one of the camper’s three favorite activities, Johnson said.

Johnson said the reading program is something being implemented across the United States because it's mutually beneficial. But at the Salem shelter, readers get an extra perk. Johnson said kids associate stories with going to sleep, so the shelter allows its junior volunteers to wear their pajamas when they do their reading.

“Kids love to show up in their pajamas,” she said.

She said the engagement at a young age can help foster civically minded adults.

“I meet these kids and then maybe these same kids will sign up to be volunteers or they do other things to help animals in the community after this program,” Johnson said.

Those interested in the storytime program can register at the Willamette Valley Humane Society website.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250 or saphara@salemreporter.com.