MARION, Va. (Dec. 18, 2016) -- On Christmas morning, Andy Overbay will get up early and put Santa hats on his furry friends, whose names are Bo and Ty. Then the three of them will drive over to Smyth County Community Hospital to visit the patients who didn’t make it home for the holidays.
For the last four years, Overbay and his dogs have visited the hospital every week, including Christmas day. This Sunday will be their fifth Christmas hospital visit in a row.
“Would you like to see the dogs today?” a hospital staff member asks on a recent Wednesday, accompanying the visiting trio to every patient’s door. Nine times out of 10, patients are thrilled to make small talk with Overbay and cozy up to his 80-pound pets.
“Mrs. Claus has been fattening us up,” Overbay responds to a patient who says she likes big dogs, before asking Bo if he can hear Santa coming outside? Bo obligingly leaps over to the window, standing on his hind legs to peer out over the frosty hospital grounds.
Overbay is a member of Chilhowie United Methodist Church. The ministry he has created -- PAWS for Christ – grew out of his faith and a lot of years working as a dairy farmer, he says.
“For a long time, I always thought that the most fulfilling Christmas would be a day given to others, sharing our blessings in ways that demonstrated our faith,” he says. “Finding time to do anything other than chores on a dairy farm on Christmas Day was difficult to the point of being an impossibility.”
Overbay, now age 53, sold his family’s dairy herd in 1998. “It took a few years to finally close out the heifers and steers born in 1998, so I often share with people complaining about their work schedule that Christmas 2000 was the first Christmas Day off I had in 28 years.”
He went on to take a job as a Virginia Tech extension agent in agricultural and natural resources. He has also served as a church lay speaker and lay leader for the last 14 years.
Yet a few years after saying bye-bye to the bovines, Overbay was ready to get busy again on Christmas Day. “I was just tired of sitting around the house not doing something productive."
HERE COMES SANTA PAWS
About eight years ago, Bo the English Springer Spaniel was born, followed by Ty almost two years later. Overbay was struck by their friendly, gentle nature.
“I’ve never had dogs that listened like these do,” he says. He took Bo and Ty for obedience school and certification through Therapy Pets Unlimited. When the new Smyth County hospital opened in 2012, Overbay and his canine companions started visiting -- and have been ever since.
Overbay insists that his ministry will be offered for free: “The day a patient sees ‘pet therapy’ on their bill is our last.”
He and his pals amble down the hospital halls, immediately bringing cheer to all they see.
“Good doggie,” says one elderly patient, beaming as she pats Ty’s head from her bed. “They’re so sweet. Do they ever get mean?”
“Only if you run out of trees,” says Overbay.
Another elderly patient remembers the dogs from a prior hospital stay. “I was here on Christmas day last year,” he said.
“Have you been naughty or nice?” Overbay asks.
The staff benefits just as much from Bo and Ty’s visits -- perhaps even more so, according to Overbay. Many brightened up and paused during their duties to hug the dogs or find a treat to share.
“For someone who doesn’t have pets right now, I love hearing them pitter-patter in,” says nurse Melissa Armstrong. “You can see they are at home here.”
“They bring a lot of joy to the patients and staff,” says Sherri Sauls, a physical therapist. “I look forward to seeing them every week.”
Overbay says the dogs are “attention-grabbers and magnets” that add a lot fun on church outings. He also takes them to ring the Salvation Army bell at Food City. He’s sure that Bo and Ty’s presence encourages shoppers to put more money in the kettle.
“Instead of walking past, they will be drawn to them,” he says. “But they feel guilty if they pat them and don’t give something.”
Bo and Ty are now well-known in Smyth County, and Overbay will often dress them up on holidays, including bunny ears on Easter and hot-dog hats on July 4. But on Dec. 25, their Santa hats and furry faces will light up hospital corners on a day when most people would rather be somewhere else.
That’s the way it should be, says Overbay.
“Our message is that anyone can serve in PAWS for Christ because even if you do not have p-a-w-s, you can always p-a-u-s-e to do something kind for someone who isn’t having the best of days,” he said.