PHOTOS: Pat Jocelyn+Fred Lopez
Call it intuition, or a God thing, but when Villager Sandy Jensen saw a short blurb in the newspaper about an upcoming fundraiser for Villagers for Veterans, a local nonprofit that helps critically injured veterans, she just knew she and her husband, Mike Applebaum, had to attend.
Speakers at the event included two female vets critically injured while in service to their country. One woman had a service dog, the other had been waiting for a dog for years. When Sandy heard that, she felt an immediate response.
“I knew I was being directed to this area of vets and service dogs.”
It bothered her that one of the veterans had been waiting more than five years for a service dog. She and Mike wanted to help.
“I saw this article on Patriot Service Dogs, Inc., and I asked Mike to call and inquire,” says Sandy.
Mike adds, “The article was just a little blurb on Patriot Service Dogs that dealt with asking for help with things like mailings.” But when he called, the conversation with founder Julie Drexel quickly took on a new twist. “She asked me if I would like to work with one of the dogs.”
That struck a chord with the couple. They decided to find out more about the nonprofit and met with Julie. “She brought Patriot and that was the first time we met the dog,” Mike explains. “It was love at first sight.” Patriot is a beautiful yellow lab.
Mike and Sandy learned dogs that are potential service animals are donated by local breeders while they’re still puppies. Some of them come from as far away as Tennessee. The puppies are brought to Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County where female inmates train them by participating in a program called WOOF (Women Offering Obedience and Friendship)
After approximately one to two years of training, the dogs are fostered out to volunteers that expose them to the real world environment—something they can’t get behind the prison walls.
Julie meets with potential volunteers to ensure the dog and the handler have a bond. Then paperwork is completed, and the dog is fostered for as short as a few days to as long as a week, based on the volunteer’s availability.
Each foster caregiver is given a list of things the dog needs to learn and keeps a journal that travels with the dog, documenting its activities and any problem encountered. When the training and fostering are complete, dogs are matched up with veterans. Remarkably, volunteers are responsible for the entire process.
Mike and Sandy were impressed with Julie’s organization and became Patriot’s foster parents. Mike knew their involvement would be crucial to Patriot’s success as a service dog, which made it a vital endeavor.
“Our purpose is to get Patriot acclimated to the type of life she may have with a veteran,” he says. “There are numerous people hosting Patriot at different points in her training. She is one and a half years old and at two years, they begin the real work with a potential veteran.”
Mike’s work with Patriot included taking the dog to a variety of men’s restrooms because in the correctional facility, there are no urinals and no doors other than those going to the outside. Other challenges included experiencing different floor surfaces and grates and unfamiliar noises like vacuum cleaners—something the dog never heard before. The world outside the prison is vastly different from what the dog has known.
Mike and Sandy knew they would get attached to Patriot, and a special bond with this dog did, in fact, develop. “I cry quicker with animals than I do with people. That’s just who I am,” Mike says. “But now that I’ve gotten involved in this whole process, I’m feeling all of this…being able to do something to help [these veterans] is really important.”
It’s obvious Mike has very strong feelings about what he and Sandy are doing with the dogs.
“It will be with tremendous pride that we say goodbye to this dog,” Mike continues as his eyes fill with tears. “I don’t act like this too many times, but this really touches my heart. This dog is special and has a special purpose and needs to be treated that way. You know a veteran is going to be relying on her. This dog will absolutely without question change the life of the person she’s with.”
Mike and Sandy know the ultimate goal of the dog is to serve the veteran and assist in the healing process.
“You can tell this dog has been raised with nothing but love. You can sense it,” Sandy adds.
That is music to Julie’s ears. She knows service dogs are making a huge difference in veterans’ lives, but seeing how these dogs are impacting the lives of people responsible for their training is an added bonus. Not only are people like Mike and Sandy acknowledging that impact, but also the inspirational stories coming from the female inmates raising and training the service dogs are quite remarkable.
Dana Douglas has been in prison nine times. “I’m a drug addict,” the 51-year-old inmate admits. “I also had a mastectomy in 2008. I got out of prison in 2009, had chemo, and got back on drugs. I came back to prison in 2013.”
But this time something clicked for the Florida native. “I took responsibility for my life. I know I’m a good person,” she says with conviction. “When I’m off the drugs I’m amazing, but when I’m on them I’m the worst [person] you’ll ever meet.”
Even though she had no expectations of getting into the WOOF program, Dana applied. “Nothing good ever happens to me because I’ve been in and out of prison my whole life,” she says. “But not two weeks later in June of 2013 I began working in the kitchen and I loved being around the dogs. Two weeks later they put me in as a dog worker.”
That one action transformed her life. “I joined NA (Narcotics Anonymous) about two years ago,” Dana says. “My life slowly began to change. I started going to recovery and I learned to be happy with me. As the dog began to change [her behavior], so did I.”
Dana and the other dog trainers realize and are proud of the tremendous contributions they make for veterans in need. The inmates know these men and women have faced their own horrific challenges. “It boosted my self-confidence and I started walking differently and started putting on makeup,” Dana explains. “It makes you feel good about yourself and what you’re doing. It builds your self-esteem.”
Hyla Hanson can relate to Dana’s story. She came from a family of substance abusers and has multiple convictions on her record. She’s been arrested 40 times, spent 25 stints in jail, and is now in prison for the second time.
“Something happened a few years ago,” Hyla explains. “I had a spiritual awakening and I found recovery. A greater power was at work. I was told to take the cotton out of my ears, put it in my mouth, and listen. That’s what I learned to do and it changed my life.”
Hyla signed up for the WOOF program and everything shifted for her. “As a drug addict, you’re all about instant gratification and fast, fast, fast,” she says. “There’s nothing fast about training these dogs. This program teaches us about something we learned in recovery: how not to give up before the miracle happens. We’re not giving up and we’re asking people out there not to give up on us either. Miracles and good things truly do happen behind these bars.”
Invariably, the inmates who work in the WOOF program not only learn to care for and train the dog, but also learn the value of discipline in their own lives.
“Through correction and structure, this program teaches us how to be productive. It teaches us hard work, persistence, consistency, and follow-through does pay off.”
Julie has built a very strong bond with these women and wants people to look beyond the blue inmate uniforms. “They’re not only serving time for something they’ve done wrong, but I’ve never had anybody say they didn’t deserve to be here. These women right now are no different than you and me. I am very blessed to know them. They have enriched my life.”
Dana, Hyla, and the other women in the program may be incarcerated, but an important part of them travels with each of the dogs they trained, just as a part of Mike and Sandy will travel with Patriot. Each dog whose life has been touched by them has been infused with their patience, their dedication, and most importantly, their love.
And it’s that same love the veteran will feel as he or she bonds with a canine companion. None of them give up before the miracles happen.