VALPARAISO — For several years, Lucky, the wheaten terrier, and her handler, Nancy Starewicz, traveled the Region helping young and old with her unique lessons. She came back recently, for a one-day special visit.

Lucky and Starewicz, who now divide their time between Florida and Minnesota, visited John Simatovich Elementary School second-graders Wednesday to meet Lucky's pen pals.

Simatovich second-grade teacher Angela Ross said each year Principal Leigh Barnes asks teachers to create goals for the school year.

"We always work on life skills and have animals in our room," Ross said, about coming up with a new goal involving animals to help pupils learn.

"I remembered there used to be a lady who traveled to the different schools, and some people remembered her name. I Googled her and found out she wasn't in this area anymore."

Ross connected with Starewicz through social media, and her students began a "pup pal" relationship with Lucky. Students wrote letters about their life, school days and adventures, and in return, Starewicz in Lucky's "voice," wrote back to them.

That was last fall.

A portion of each day, students work with Ross on their letters, reading the books Starewicz created around the dog and going to Starewicz's blog to read about Lucky. Starewicz also sent videos to students about Lucky's different adventures in Florida.

Neither Ross nor the students ever expected to meet Starewicz and Lucky face-to-face; instead, they had a stuffed dog they named Lucky. But when Starewicz found she might have a little extra time while traveling to Minnesota, she decided to stop by for a visit.

Starewicz, a former school psychologist, worked with students and families for more than 30 years in the Crown Point Community School Corp. and School City of Hobart. She retired in 2008, and she and her husband, a retired educator, got Lucky as a puppy. The dog is now 11 1/2 years old.

Over the years, Starewicz has written six books about her wheaten terrier, and the important life lessons she's learned from her pet. They have visited thousands of students over the years, mostly in Northwest Indiana.

Lucky a role model

During their interactive programs, students and parents hear about Lucky and see her demonstrate good behavior. All the Lucky books have universal messages for all ages emphasizing empathy, listening, trust, being thankful and friendship.

As Starewicz demonstrated Lucky's skills, she told students Lucky likes people and pays close attention to their hands.

"To a dog, people are their hands; Lucky has never been hurt by hands, so she thinks the whole world has good hands because no one has ever hurt her with their hands," Starewicz said.

"Hands are for helping, never hurting. So take a look at your hands. Be as friendly as Lucky."

She said Lucky is especially good at waiting patiently and paying attention, and she encouraged the children always to pay attention to their teachers and parents.

Second-grader Ava Lukawski said in one of her letters, she wrote about how Lucky taught students to always have "good" hands.

"I made a picture of two hands shaped like a heart," Ava said. "It's fun seeing Lucky in person. We always write to him, and we always think about him. We were thinking we really wanted to see Lucky in person."

Second-grader Nick Brazeau said he likes dogs and has one at home. "My dog is really small," he said, adding he was excited Lucky came to his classroom.

Ross said the students love animals, and Lucky has been an excellent connection for them.

"Lucky has made lifelong memories for the students and me," she said.

"One student asked me, 'Was I dreaming, or was Lucky really here?' Nancy and Lucky also inspired our class to apply for a grant so we could donate supplies and money for Lakeshore Paws animal rescue."

The students intend to make 18 fleece blankets to donate to the animal shelter. They made a blanket for Lucky and presented it to her during the visit, laughing as she planted her paws on it and seemed to take a nap.

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Education reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.