Our lives can be transformed in a myriad of ways.
This is the story of how a little dog and the art inspired by him changed lives, including my own.
As a career-long artist educator, I’ve seen firsthand the gift and magic of the arts firsthand. I built my doctoral dissertation around stories describing the meaning of art in people’s lives. It was a testament to the importance of honoring the human heart. The arts can touch us in deep and powerful ways.
I have also witnessed the life-changing effect of owning a pet—in particular, a little 3-ish lb. mixed-breed dog named Norbert. He came into my daughter’s life 8 years ago. Julie adopted him from an online pet site.
As a first-time dog owner, Julie’s heart embraced this little bundle of unconditional love. She believed he was a special creature, but even she could not know that his was a face that would bring millions of smiles around the world.
It’s a story that eventually took her 3,000 miles away to marry and have a family.
For me, it launched an exciting new career to follow my retirement from public teaching.
In Boston with Julie, Norbert as a tiny puppy made everyone smile. His infectious enthusiasm for each person he’d meet, and the way his own little mouth turned upwards into a smile, made all kinds of people melt. After learning about pet therapy, Julie decided to train Norbert to pass a therapy animal test so they could volunteer in children’s hospitals and nursing homes. This was new to them both, but Norbert passed with flying colors and they began to regularly volunteer time with those who needed comfort and smiles.
Julie and I sat down in a Boston coffee shop one day, and on a napkin, we sketched out the idea for what would become a picture book to be titled Norbert: What Can Little Me Do? Inspired by Norbert, it would tell the tale of a dog so little, he thought he could do nothing. But he discovers his unique gift and proves you don’t have to be big to make a BIG difference in the world--we each have a unique gift to share.
Neither of us had ever created a picture book before, but we believed in this idea so strongly that we formed a publishing company, wrote, illustrated, and published the book. It was amazing to work with my daughter to bring this dream to life. It was hard work and a big learning curve that took us 3 years. Jeff, my son, created Norbert’s handwritten font for the book and drew Norbert’s cartoon pencil sketches. As an artist, an entrepreneur, and a mother, it was an unforgettable moment in time. I will never forget the day the shipment of books arrived, when Julie and I held our heart-work in our hands for the first time.
Meanwhile, Julie posted photographs and videos of Norbert on social media, the simple purpose of which was to make people smile. We were touched by the warm response of so many people we did not know. We came to call this collective group of engaged followers the “Norberthood.”
We each ultimately left our full-time jobs to work exclusively in our company, creating two more Norbert books inspired by people and animals we came to know in real life. The books promoted kindness, caring, and compassion. At this point, hundreds of thousands of people were following Norbert online, and we were hearing ways in which Norbert brightened their days and inspired them and their children. We felt grateful to be doing this work.
Of intense meaning for Julie was her work as a pet therapy team at Boston Children’s Hospital. The faces of children who may not have smiled for days would light up when Norbert came in the room, did his tricks, and settled onto their beds to be patted. People call him a little angel.
We designed and created a Norbert plush toy by popular demand. For each one sold, we donated one to Toys for Tots®. Through the support of all who purchased a plush, we donated thousands of Norbert plush toys to the needy in this way. The Norberthood is special, and it cultivates kindness.
Julie was invited to appear with Norbert on a national television show, Home & Family, to talk about pet adoption and pet therapy. It was there she met her husband, Mark, and they fell in love. A year later they married, and she became step-mom to his two wonderful sons. And a year after that, Julie and Mark are anticipating the upcoming birth of their daughter, my first grandchild.
Julie and Norbert now volunteer at a Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and Norbert continues to make people smile around the world. His followers now number over 1.35 million people. We are thinking about a possible next book.
What if this little dog had not come into Julie’s life, and through her, the lives of others?
What if we had not used the art forms of storytelling, illustration, design, photography, and video to share his messages?
Lives were transformed.
That’s how Norbert’s little face launched a million smiles, making the world a better place.
That’s also how art changed lives.
I’m sure there are many other stories out there about the power of the creative.