Friday, March 5, 2010
PAWS BEHIND BARS
The Dominguez State Prison near San Antonio, Texas, houses two thousand one hundred offenders on any one day! S. is but one. Dressed in a white shirt and pants, S. weighs at least three hundred and twenty pounds. Yet he was visibly humbled in the presence of an eighty pound Labrador retriever. After multiple background checks, it was arranged for me to visit with the offenders that were training puppies with Guide Dogs of Texas. I had heard about the program and was most anxious to find out what the offenders had to say, what it meant to them, and how if at all, did it change their lives.
My interview with S. brought clarity. He had learned patience and responsibility during his twenty four months in prison. And he learned this from a dog. S. is first to admit, “I couldn’t show compassion before Astro.”
For S. the road had been a long one. The process for selecting which offenders were given the opportunity to train a guide dog puppy, before more formal guide dog training, is tough. S. was rejected initially, but finally was given the opportunity. Out of the two thousand one hundred offenders, only ten are selected to interview and ultimately only three graduate.
Sam did such a remarkable job with his first guide dog puppy in training, that he was granted the same opportunity with two more pups. He was a natural!
S. and I sat alone in a room, and it is hard to say which of us was more unsettled. I began by asking S. what he had learned by having to train a puppy. His eyes quickly filled with tears. “In a perfect world each inmate would have a dog. They can really impact a guy’s life. They give you principles. The dogs that came to me were a blessing. We are all just people who have made wrong decisions.” S. told me his whole life has changed. “I don’t want anything to do with my past. I am hoping to one day become a dog trainer.”
S. said he had been ‘lonesome’ in prison, but with Astro he had found a ‘true friend.’ The bond goes deep between S. and his temporary dog. “Astro is fun to play with, but it is a 24 hour a day job.”
Some of the other inmates have “given him a hard time,” because there are times when he must talk 'baby-talk' to Astro. “Astro good boy, what a good boy!” But “deep inside they are really jealous that I have this dog and not them.”
S. summed it all up, “These dogs will make a difference in someone’s life when they become guide dogs for the blind. I know it has made a difference in my life. I am changed inside.”
But endings and goodbyes come. S. will be released from prison soon. “It is hard for me to leave him. But I know Astro will be working on getting ready to go help somebody who needs him very much.” Again from deep inside this three hundred and twenty pound giant of a man, “I’ll be sad, but it was well worth it.”
S. again unashamedly cried as he shared more of his time in prison, “Besides the mail, 'man’s best friend' is the only bit of life you get in here. Astro saved me and now will save someone else. When I first got here there wasn’t any good in my heart. Now I have feeling in my heart. It was all about drugs and booze and never caring about anyone or anything.”
In one single moment, life can take us in a different direction. And most of the time it is in the right direction for growth and healing. Like Kelsie's life (she was slated to be a guide dog for the blind,) the offenders are finding their lives are heading in a different directions. Directions now filled with more confidence, self esteem, responsibilty and nurturing, that training these dogs has given them. They like Kelsie, will find that they might be heading in a different direction, a direction that will alter their lives to be more productive and helpful to others.
Interesting to note that not one offender who has completed the course has returned to prison!
As my time with S. came to a close, he bent over and whispered to me, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but there was a time one night when I had had a really, really bad day. That night I let the dog get on the bed and sleep with me.”
Isn’t that what it is all about?
"Promise me you'll always remember. You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem,and smarter than you think."
~Christopher Robin to Pooh~
"There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief and unspeakable love,"
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