BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. — SouthTech Academy is a charter school in Boynton Beach focused on career development and readiness. All students who attend participate in a career academy covering everything from business to medicine to cosmetology and veterinary services.
SouthTech has the Veterinary Assisting Academy in Palm Beach County.
Carolee Ellison has been teaching there for 17 years. Inside her classroom, you'll often find students working hands-on with all kinds of animals.
Students can earn an industry certification as a veterinary assistant, preparing them for the workforce after high school or further education in college.
"It helps me share my passion with students who have the same passion as me and I think it makes the world a better place," Ellison said.
As a longtime dog trainer herself, Ellison brought her two worlds together, as the students help train dogs to become service animals for veterans through the Captain's Canines for Heroes program.
"I know the wonderful, powerful things dogs can do for people who are hurting," Ellison said.
Ellison said she has trained about 25 dogs to become service animals. The training takes anywhere from about four to six months, then the dog is matched with a veteran who also has to undergo training.
Army Veteran Frank Policastri said he would not have made it through the years of COVID without his service dog, Stretch.
"He serves a purpose with me and a very important one," Policastri said. "With a dog in the house you are never alone."
Policastri often comes to the SouthTech classroom to speak with the students.
Ellison fosters the future service dogs and brings them to the classroom so the students can work with them on the basics of becoming a service animal.
"When they go to a clinic, they are better prepared to handle real animals," Ellison said. "Plus, they get the satisfaction of knowing they helped a veteran as well through the dog training. Plus, their dogs at home get better training as well."
Student Kennya Molina said she came into the program for the snakes.
"Next thing you know, I'm surrounded by dogs as well and that's exciting, because I was a huge cat person, and I became a dog person," Molina said. "It's an honor to be around these dogs and to know that we are making a difference."
The students love on the animals like their own. In fact, you will often see slithery snakes mixed right in with the class. Senior Ryan Hyppolite even designed a new habitat for the snakes as part of an Eagle Scout project.
"I came up with the idea to give them a place they can explore around in," Hyppolite said.
While Ellison may be training the next generation of veterinarians, she's also training the next generation of man's best friend.
"I can love them but they have a job to do and they have a higher purpose and I'm gonna help them to do that," Ellison said.