This year’s winner of the Sara Andrasek Memorial Award proved that compassion is not limited to human heroes.
Rasta, a four-year-old golden retriever, was honored Monday, April 8 at the 14th annual award ceremony, held each year as part of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. The event included the Platte County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office Victims’ Rights Luncheon, held at Platte City United Methodist Church with dozens of elected officials, law enforcement and members of the community in attendance.
A therapy dog with Synergy Services in Parkville, Rasta is owned and handled by Synergy’s director of child, youth and family clinical services, Jennifer Vernon. While Rasta was dressed up for the occasion in his best black tie, it was Vernon who did the talking.
A long-time dog lover herself, Vernon said Rasta has become an essential part of the staff at Synergy Services, providing a confidant and furry shoulder to lean on for many of Synergy’s clients. His presence helps calm the young – and others in need – and supports them through sometimes difficult interviews or examinations.
Vernon said sometimes, clients will come by her office just for a hug with Rasta after a rough day.
“He just seems to know when people need him,” Vernon said.
A trained therapy dog, Rasta is also certified through Platte County Pet Power, a University of Missouri Extension program that vets animals through behavioral testing to visit patients in nursing homes, group homes and other institutional facilities.
“I’ve had golden retrievers since I was 11,” Vernon said. “It’s great to be able to take your dog with you everywhere you go and I wanted him to be welcome everywhere we went, so getting his certification was important.”
More recently, Rasta has taken on a role in the Platte County Courthouse as well, accompanying two young victims of sexual abuse to the witness stand in January to support them during their testimony.
“Rasta may not be human but the healing he provides for victims of crime is truly amazing,” said prosecutor Eric Zahnd. “When we think of those words — comfort, care and compassion — I will tell you that Rasta exemplifies them.”
The Platte County Prosecutor’s Office is the only one in the Kansas City metro area to utilize a therapy dog in the courtroom, a practice Zahnd said he hopes catches on in more locations as it helps the system to deliver justice without re-traumatizing victims.
The Sara Andrasek Memorial Award honors the memory of the Platte County woman who was pregnant with her first child when she was raped and murdered in Kansas City North in 2001 by a serial rapist and murderer. Wayne Dumond died in custody in Cameron in 2005 while awaiting trial, in what Zahnd had intended to be a capital murder case. Andrasek was murdered the day before Dumond’s arrest for the rape and murder of Parkville resident Carol Sue Shields.
Andrasek’s mother Janet Williams helped present the award to Rasta and Vernon.