ALIAUNDA LANIYA said that her daughter Ebun is such a shy 9-year-old that a bad day at school can bring her to tears - but you'd never guess that from the smile on Ebun's face as she gazed up at Myrtle the rat, who was perched on her head, exploring her braids.
Ebun's eyes focused on Myrtle's tail swishing back and forth across the bridge of her nose.
There was no fear in the fourth-grader's eyes. Only love.
And that is the point of the after-school Caring Paws Keystone Kids program that the nonprofit Caring People Alliance runs for 300 second-through-seventh-graders at its R.W. Brown Community Center, in North Philadelphia.
By teaching children to be sensitive to the needs of small, helpless creatures, Caring Paws tries to instill in them a similar compassion for each other.
"You can do as much role-playing as you want, but this is different," said Laura Lau, business-development manager for the Caring People Alliance.
"Taking kids to the zoo on a field trip is not the same as having our own little zoo where they get to care for animals every day."
"Ebun is a clinger," Laniya said. "When I was her age, I used to cling to my mother like Ebun clings to me now. When I clung, my mother would sing, 'Me and My Shadow.' Ebun is my shadow."
"Ebun is very empathetic, very nurturing," Laniya said. "She's such a little mother. The animals are therapeutic for her. Her feelings are hurt easily. She cries if something didn't go right at school with a girlfriend or a teacher or an assignment. It is very calming for her to be here with the animals."
Caring Paws teacher Tracy Lovelace uses the 17 rats, ferrets, rabbits and guinea pigs to convey life lessons.
"Before I let the kids enter the room, we do a kind of short meditation, letting go of any problems we had earlier in the day," she said.
Lovelace said the children overcome their fears quickly.
"We get some kids who are afraid of the animals at first, especially the rats," she said, laughing.
"But if a kid sees that another kid is not afraid to let a rat walk on her head, things change quickly from 'Rats are gross' to 'OK, I'll kiss the rat, too.' "
Rozina McFadden said that her daughter, Sabrina Forde, was so taken with Caring Paws that she asked her mom if they could get a pet rat.
"I said: 'A pet what?' " McFadden recalled in mock horror. Sabrina wanted to put a rat on McFadden's head to calm her fears.
"You put that on me, I'm going to faint," said McFadden, who believes that Caring Paws has done wonders for her daughter.
Fawn Scott, a native North Philadelphian, said that when she and her family moved back to Philly from suburban Maryland a couple of years ago, her daughter, Lashawn, then 10, had problems adjusting.
"She sounded different than the kids here," Scott said. "She looked different. She just didn't want to be here. It bothered her inside. The only thing she liked was going to this community center after school."
Now 12, the seventh-grader has adapted to urban life, but remains quiet and shy.
"When she doesn't want to be around anyone else, she wants to be around the animals," Scott said.