A prison is the last place you might expect to hear a bark, but in three Texas correctional facilities, you’ll regularly hear barks, commands and the pitter-patter of paws. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice partnered with Patriot Paws, a nonprofit that pairs disabled veterans with service dogs. Before the dogs are paired with a vet, incarcerated individuals train them to learn basic service animal skills. The pairing between Patriot Paws and prisons is mutually beneficial. The trainers learn valuable life lessons and gain skills that can lead to career opportunities post-release, and the dogs learn how to care for a vet. Since starting the partnership in 2008, Patriot Paws has hired two formerly-incarcerated dog trainers. Meet one of the trainers and learn how you can get involved with Patriot Paws in the video above. More: People in Prisons Are Learning to Code — and It Might Alter the Course of Their Lives
West Point’s motto, “Duty, Honor, Country,” is perfectly suited to the values of the military, but for graduate John Tien, these three words extend well beyond his 24 years of active duty in the U.S. Army. “Even when I am not in the military, I am trying to live my life by this motto,” says Tien, Citi’s managing director of retail services and a steering committee member of the Citi Salutes affinity network, Citi’s veterans’ employee-led initiative that serves the veterans community. “I feel like it is my obligation, and my privilege, to continue to serve military families and veterans.” Tien joined the bank in 2011, right after serving as a senior national security adviser to the White House. Working with employees across the company, Tien wanted to bring veterans together as a community, and guide them through the challenging transition to civilian life by tapping into the military grit they cultivated during their service. “Too often the portrait is of the wounded and broken veteran,” says Tien. “Yes, some are wounded and need our help, but the majority of veterans are ready and able to be strategic assets for our community. These are great, young Americans who are given tremendous responsibility to stabilize chaotic situations. They have tremendous amounts of emotional intelligence and critical thinking, making them agile leaders. If we can teach them the concepts of banking as well as operations and technologies, they will be on a path to unlock their highest potential.” Within a month of working at Citi, Tien realized that the company could leverage a huge talent pool of veterans. He and Micah Heavener, a Citi colleague and fellow Army vet, launched the Military Officer Leadership program at Citi to assist military leaders transitioning to civilian life. The 24-month rotational program connects veterans with mentors and prepares them for careers in operations and technology. It offers formal training in banking principles and financial services technology, and provides certifications through efficiency programs such as the Lean Six Sigma. “About two-thirds of military officers leave the service after five to eight years,” says Tien. “These are the heroes and thought leaders we can pull into the bank.” Tien also wanted to start an employee network to support internal veteran colleagues and to boost engagement with local veteran communities and organizations in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was based at the time. Initially, Tien only knew one other veteran at that location. “There has to be more than you and me,” he remembers saying to Heavener. “This is a 5,000-person site.” Tien was right. One building over, an Army ranger was working as a project manager in Citi’s technology group. When Tien asked him if he wanted to help start a local chapter of the military network, his reply was, “Hooah!” Three months later, just in time for Veterans Day, Tien’s idea to bring vets together gave rise to the Citi Salutes network’s second chapter (The first was opened in Citi’s New York office). “What’s even more amazing is that while the veterans formed the nucleus of the chapter, by 2018, more than half of the overall network consists of civilians who want to be part of the mission,” Tien says. Over the past seven years, Tien has helped support and inspire the creation of 15 more chapters in North America and London. “The military is a brotherhood, it’s a sisterhood, it’s a family,” he says. “At Citi, I felt like I could find that form of camaraderie again, not just with fellow veterans, but with colleagues.” Tien’s penchant for helping others is instinctual at this point. “I knew I couldn’t help serving,” he says. When Tien moved to Atlanta in 2016, he wasn’t sure if the Citi-site was large enough to support a big network, but his colleagues proved otherwise. After reaching out to all 200 Citi employees in Atlanta, asking whether anyone had a connection to a vet — whether it be a friend, grandfather, husband or daughter — more than 60 people wrote back. “I have often said that the next greatest generation is the post-9/11 generation,” Tien says. “These individuals are having an impact across the nation and their communities.”
This article is paid for and produced in partnership with Citi. Through Citi Salutes, Citi collaborates with veterans’ service organizations and leading veterans’ champions to support and empower veterans, service members and their families. This is the seventh installment in a series focusing on solutions for veterans and military families in the areas of housing, financial resilience, military transition and employment.
I never served in the military. And yet I find myself helping those who did serve, every day. That’s not by coincidence. I grew up in a military family where pride, honor and service were all part of our ethos. Our license plate says “Oorah”; my first stuffed animal was a bulldog. Military is very much part of who we are. My father was a Vietnam veteran, and though he didn’t speak much about those days, you could tell he thought back on that time with incredible fondness. I wanted something like that. To be part of something bigger than myself. Whenever any one of us left the house, my mother always used to remind us, “Remember who you are.” It was a constant reminder that we were representing the values and strength that military families must have. So serving was something I was expected to do, and it’s something I wanted for myself. Which is why when it came to going to college, I’m sure it was odd for my father — a 26-year veteran — to hear that I would be not attending a military academy or even registering to be in any branch of the military. Instead I had an incredible opportunity to play soccer at school, which tore at my heart. Would I be letting down my family? Is this not the opposite of how I was raised? My father calmed me down and told me something that I would never forget, and that I carry to this day. He said, “Meghan, go to school and get a great education. You’ll find your way to service. Go be the best you can be.”
And I did. I eventually found my way into finance at Lehman Brothers in 2005 and moved my way up the corporate ladder. But a few years and thousands of layoffs later, I stopped and had to ask myself what I was doing — was this really the service I was meant to do? Service is meant to be selfless. My father talked about his time in service not with pride for himself, but with pride for his peers. But at some point in everyone’s time of service, there’s a realization that whatever help you’re giving often ends up bettering your life too. And I just wasn’t feeling that with where I was. It was around that time when I was approached by a friend who told me about a one-armed Jesuit priest named Father Rick Curry who wanted to start a nonprofit for veterans in Washington, D.C. I just had to meet him. I sat down with Father Curry for a whole weekend, and he sold me on this vision he had, built around men and women veterans who — unlike the people in the movies, broken and desperate — have a variety of different voices and talents, despite their physical or mental ailments acquired while serving. And with that, he and his co-founder created Dog Tag Bakery, a space that utilizes veterans as employees, but also offers classes and the support to start an entrepreneurial venture of their own. I joined as their first employee in 2012. I would never say I’m at the same level of my father, sister or mom. But I’ve helped establish a program that has a culture of acceptance and offers wraparound services to vets. It’s not about running a bakery — it’s about running the best bakery. And this isn’t just about doing something good for people. This is about doing good business. We’re seeing an economic impact. Change doesn’t always happen on a national level; it happens on a small level in our communities every day. I think that there’s no greater calling than that.
As told to NationSwell staff writer Joseph Darius Jaafari. This essay has been edited for clarity and style. Read more stories of service here.
Approximately 4,300 women veterans are homeless at any given time, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. When Cindy Seymour, a former Air Force sergeant, heard that number, she knew she had to do something to help her sisters-in-arms. In 2011, Seymour founded Serenity for Women, an organization that works to improve the lives of women transitioning from the military into civilian life. The Syracuse, New York-based nonprofit does this by building transitional “tiny” homes for homeless female veterans and also connecting them with local support services. An estimated 1.4 million veterans are at risk of becoming homeless, and women vets make up ten percent of the homeless veteran population, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Job support and financial assistance are both critical in reducing homeless veteran populations. But women vets have additional needs that require more nuanced solutions. “Women veterans absolutely require a different approach of outreach and support than their male counterparts,” says Anna Stormer with the Women Veterans Center in Philadelphia, which reached “functional zero,” or when homelessness is essentially eradicated among veterans, in 2015. Women face a number of unique barriers when accessing services, Stormer says. “A lot of women truly are unaware of the benefits for which they qualify.” The Women Veterans Center, for example, uses a “trauma informed” approach to help empower female veterans in making long-term housing decisions. This method addresses issues that impact many female vets, like post-traumatic stress disorder. The center also features play areas to occupy kids while their mothers are with social services. To be connected with [the community] I think is important, and to have an organization that is vet-specific,” says Andrew McCawley, president and CEO of the New England Center and Home for Veterans (NECHV). With financing from Citi, NECHV created a designated floor for women and expanded its mental healthcare facilities. NECHV’s program is one of a number of initiatives across the country with the goal of helping homeless veterans. The Bring Them Homes initiative, run by the LISC-National Equity Fund (NEF) and supported by Citi Community Development, gives pre-development grants to nonprofits that provide supportive housing to homeless veterans. So far, Bring Them Homes has created nearly 4,000 housing units, and also offers a variety of support services to vets in need. “The greatest need is with single adults, and the percentages have been increasing with women,” says Debbie Burkart, vice president of supportive housing for NEF. “These vets deserve special attention. They have selflessly given to this country and then they’ve come back and, in some cases, we haven’t done enough to take care of them. They shouldn’t end up on the street.” Much like Bring Them Homes, the tiny homes program in Syracuse embeds supportive services into the housing process. Once construction on the tiny homes is finished, the only thing the women need to bring is themselves — and a willingness to take part in programs that help them secure jobs and receive therapy.
This article is paid for and produced in collaboration with Citi. Through Citi Salutes, Citi collaborates with veteran service organizations and leading veteran champions to support and empower veterans, service members and their families. This is the sixth installment in a seriesfocusing on solutions for veterans and military families in the areas of housing, financial resilience, military transition and employment.
Nathan Moser and Alyssa Menard both grew up in rural areas and spent most of their childhoods outdoors. But until recently, their similarities ended there. Menard stayed close to home to attend college, where she never quite figured out what she wanted to pursue after graduation. And Moser joined the Marines, serving for a time overseas. Once both were finished — Menard with school and Moser with the armed forces — they found themselves wondering what to do next. In 2015, Menard began her first service year at Virginia’s Pocahontas State Park after applying to a number of AmeriCorps park programs. She also participated in Service Year Alliance’s career development program, which is designed to give its members the basis for finding employment in their chosen field. After Moser came back stateside, he began searching for a career path where he could work outdoors and as part of a team. Now he is completing his first service year at Pocahontas, where he’s worked closely with Menard and has come to view her as a mentor. For Menard’s part, she recognizes the drive and skills Moser brings to the table. “He is ready to do things,” Menard says. “He isn’t afraid to take the initiative, take the lead. He goes for it. And I like that because it helps get things done.” Watch the video above to follow along as Menard and Moser complete their training and prepare for jobs in the state park system.
NationSwell asks you to join our partnership with Service Year Alliance. Watch the video above and learn more about how a service year is truly for everyone. Together, we can lead a national movement to give young Americans the opportunity to help bridge the divides in our country.
Most people have switched jobs at least once, but transitioning out of the military is an experience most civilians can’t fully understand. To soften the transition, many veteran-run organizations step in to make the process easier. Here are three organizations that epitomize comradeship.
VETERANS TO FARMERS, DENVER
The nonprofit Veterans to Farmers grows more than plants. The Denver-based organization uses agriculture to help vets reintegrate into civilian life, one lettuce patch at a time. They offer eight-to-10-week training programs in hydroponics, aquaponics and in-soil farming at no cost to veterans who apply — some may even qualify for a stipend. “We have every background of veteran,” says Rich Murphy, co-founder and executive director. “Some want to grow food for family, some want to learn about agriculture, and some show up for no reason.” In 2013, Murphy, a third-generation U.S. Air Force veteran who had served in Security Forces for five years, was building a career as a social worker in Denver. There, he met Buck Adams, a former Marine, who had the idea to hire vets to work at his greenhouse. With interest in urban farming and homesteading, Murphy didn’t hesitate to shift gears, and he and Adams co-founded Veterans to Farmers. “We knew that combining veterans and farming could have huge positive impacts for both communities,” he says. The positive effects of getting one’s hands dirty are real. Take Eli, who served in both the Army and the Marines before being dishonorably discharged after a mental breakdown. Because of his mental and physical disabilities, he was struggling to adjust to civilian life. He heard about the program online and drove from Kentucky to Colorado. “He was dealing with PTSD and there was an individual war inside him,” says Murphy. After completing two courses, Eli enrolled in college and was able to have his dishonorable discharge adjusted into an honorable one. He still gardens and now owns five acres. “It takes energy to go after what you need,” adds Murphy. “We have to get these people engaged, to hang out in the field, planting, reintegrating.” Five years and more than 100 veteran-graduates later,the organization isn’t slowing down. It is currently building another 3,000-square-foot greenhouse in Fort Collins, Colorado, and launching a homesteading course that will include beekeeping as well as chicken and hog care.
HOMEFRONT ROOM REVIVAL, GOLDSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA
Hardships in the military are not just for the enlisted. While life in the armed forces is marked by a nomadic nature, spouses and families can have a hard time settling into their communities. To combat that sense of isolation, Homefront Room Revival aims to boost morale through purposeful custom home projects across North Carolina. “People think that you’re always going to move out,” says founder and executive director Katelyn Tinsley. “So you never really move in.” Homefront Room Revivalwants to change that by helping military families find a comfort in the “chaos of military life.” Tinsley knows what it’s like to feel lonely and unenthused about her home. After almost five years as a mental health tech for the Air Force, she found out that she was pregnant with a second child shortly after her husband was deployed. “Chasing my 1-year-old and coming home to an empty house gave me anxiety,” she says. She started decorating to make herself feel better — transforming her space into a home filled with thrift-store pieces and flea market finds — which helped her get her bearings during a tough time. This gave her an idea: bring joy to others, one redecorated room at a time. Tinsley started picking up home décor projects for friends, and eventually launched Homefront Room Revival in 2016. The program relies on volunteers — currently that includes more than 200 service members and spouses — as well partnerships with Habitat for Humanity and the local arts council. Not only does the organization help families settle into their homes, but it provides a creative outlet for its volunteers and upcycles furniture that would have otherwise gone to waste. Last December, Homefront Room Revival launched Dec’ the Deployment, focusing on holiday decorations. The team spruced up eight homes, including one with a newborn whose mom “just didn’t have the energy” to put up a tree because her husband was deployed. Tinsley sees the project as an important way to support military families. “It’s a unique way to get people involved and have that personal connection of [having] outreached to those who wouldn’t be touched otherwise.”
GREEN EXTREME HOMES CDC, GARLAND, TEXAS
A house is something many of us often take for granted, but for veterans, homes play an important role in their integration back to civilian life. Veteran homelessness is a serious problem. The National Alliance to End Homelessness finds that there are more than 40,000 homeless veterans — almost 10 percent of all homeless adults. Green Extreme Homes CDC in Garland, Texas, is a nonprofit providing homes that are discounted as much as 50 percent to veterans and their families, and the homes themselves are anything but ordinary. The concept is simple: take old, drafty houses and completely gut them into not merely energy-efficient homes, but into Zero Energy Ready Homes — a Department of Energy program that applies rigorous coding standards to new homes, with the requirement that they’re at least 40–50 percent more energy efficient than a typical new home. “We are way above current codes and next current codes,” says Steve Brown, builder and president of Green Extreme Homes CDC, adding that their construction standards are more aligned to home guidelines for the year 2030. Each house they remodel features optimized plumbing, solar power hookups, efficient insulation and Energy Star appliances, which can translate into utility bills of around $2 dollars a day. To create these eco-centric and affordable homes, Green Extreme Homes CDC teams up with volunteers from local veteran coalitions and corporate initiatives, including Citi, which has collaborated with the nonprofit since 2011. The team is currently working on a seven-bedroom group home in Lewisville, Texas, for women veterans with or without children. “Right now, there are 97 women veterans living in Dallas-area shelters,” says Jean Brown, executive director of Green Extreme Homes CDC, whose family boasts four generations of veterans. “We can take in 15 to 20 female vets and provide them a home and a nurturing environment. There is no time limit for how long they can stay [in order] to get back on their feet.” The group home, which will have a hydroponics system to help the women grow their own food, is in early development. As the project progresses, the team, including a small army of Citi volunteers, will work together on everything from landscaping to furniture assembly in preparation for the grand finale next spring. “It starts with housing,” Brown says. “Once you have a roof over your head you can find employment and mentoring.”
This article was paid by and produced in partnership with Citi. Through Citi Salutes, Citi collaborates with veterans’ service organizations and leading veterans’ champions to support and empower veterans, service members and their families. This is the fifth installment in a seriesfocusing on solutions for veterans and military families in the areas of housing, financial resilience, military transition and employment.
Correction: A previous version of this article featured outdated information on Homefront Room Revival’s volunteer count and partnerships. NationSwell apologizes for the error.
After World War II, 20 percent of veterans created businesses after they left the service. Now, only four percent of veterans do so. And that’s a shame, especially when so many qualified veterans have so much more to offer, especially as entrepreneurs. But it doesn’t have to be this way. I spent over a decade as a recruiter for the Army, trying to help young men and women sign up for military service and realize their full potential. It was exactly what my recruiter did for me when I was a young man growing up in Flint, Michigan. But now that I’m out of the Army, I’ve made it my mission to help veterans understand their potential as entrepreneurs. I understood at a young age the fear of leaving the comforts of my life to start something new. It’s a feeling that almost every person I grew up with in my hometown experienced. When I was young, you could name five or six auto plants in Flint. That’s where everyone worked; that’s where we were going to work. So when all the plants closed down — jobs moved overseas and across borders — there wasn’t much for us in the way of work. Where would we go? What would we do? Because my town was crumbling, I started seeing lots of individuals joining the military. It’s an easy way out, I’ll admit. And I won’t lie in saying it’s not, for many, a decision based purely on finances. So when I was approached at the mall by an Army recruiter, I knew what was happening. Most everyone who joins the military has contact with a recruiter at some point. Their job is to convince you to join. That’s it. But the recruiter I met that day wasn’t like others. He told me what I could do with my life, and told me about my opportunities. It’s easy to pinpoint when you’re being sold something in a heavy-handed manner, like with a timeshare. He didn’t do that. He was honest, forthcoming and just laid out the facts. I kept in contact with him, and when I was old enough to join the Army, I did exactly that.
Sure, my decision to join was driven by economic reasons, but it was also a chance to get out and provide myself with a fresh opportunity. I didn’t recognize at the time that the military would change my life so much. The Army gave me insight into what would become my life’s mission: helping my fellow man. And I was finally in a position to help others. And though I didn’t have money to, say, donate to causes, I did have my own story of growing up in Flint and not knowing what to do after high school. After five years in the Army, I was selected to become a recruiter. From then on, I could use my own story to help others who were just like me, back when I was a lost 15-year-old. I went back home to Flint, the place I tried to escape. I went back to my high school, the place where people saw me as a knucklehead, and I met my old teachers — the ones who thought I wouldn’t amount to much — and I showed them how the Army had changed my life. I saw myself in all those students there, and I was plain, simple and honest with them — just like my recruiter was with me. But I didn’t stop at Flint. I also went to Washington D.C., Baltimore, San Antonio and Houston. I met with the poorest of the poor in the grimiest of neighborhoods, where drugs and violence were everywhere. I went to the western outskirts of Detroit, where there are almost no opportunities for kids, with the intent of helping people make a positive change in their environment. And they respected me for it. At the same time, I had a litany of side hustles. I was a digital consultant, website creator and blogger. Wherever I found a way to make extra money, I did it. I had established enough of a side business where I wasn’t afraid of what would happen to me when I retired. But before I retired, I began to realize that it wasn’t just young people who needed my help in recognizing their potential. My fellow soldiers were leaving the service at 30, 40 years of age, and had no clue what they wanted to do after they left.
Just like those young men and women who were fearful about what to do after high school, there were people I was serving with who had the same anxiety about what they could do after a lifetime in service. I saw another opportunity to help. So I started the Military Influencer Conference, which brings together veterans, spouses and business leaders for opportunities to build their own businesses post-service. My process hasn’t changed much. But instead of talking to 17-year-old kids about their opportunities, I’m now meeting with middle-aged men and women and helping them understand their potential. I derive satisfaction from knowing that I might be helping people have a second chance in a new career, and to access opportunities they never knew they had. Hopefully this is just the beginning. And, eventually, we can bring more veterans into building businesses. Just like me, they are not done serving yet.
As told to staff writer Joseph Darius Jaafari. This essay has been edited for style and clarity. Read more stories of service here.
“How many people have you killed?” Former Marine Julio Cortes looked into the face of the curious teen interrogating him. “Next question,” Cortes replied. Those are the kinds of questions we’re taughtnever toask a veteran: Have you ever seen someone die? Have you been shot? Who did you kill? But in Chicago’s Urban Warriors program, those kinds of questions are not only permitted but encouraged. That’s because the teens participating in the program have more likely than not witnessed or experienced similar violence themselves. Cortes is one of 40 veterans currently participating in Urban Warriors, a program operated by the YMCA of Metro Chicago’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention (YSVP) initiative. The program uses trauma-informed therapy to create and implement community projects throughout the city. Urban Warriors, one of five YSVP projects, is a five-year-old initiative with branches in a handful of Chicago’s most under-resourced neighborhoods, and it pairs veterans with youth who are at risk of committing or being subject to violence. As nearly half of all homicides in Chicago are attributed to gangs, the need for effective intervention in the city is dire. Nationally, the percentage of those in gangs who are under 18 years old hovers around 35 percent. Psychologists have found that if young people find mentors outside the streets, they are motivated to stay away from gangs. And that’s exactly what Urban Warriors has found effective in building up the self-esteem and self-worth of the kids in its program. The teens look up to and respect veterans, who can relate to what it feels like living in a war zone. They know what it’s like to fear for one’s life. And talking about the looming specter of violence in their lives helps youth process the resulting trauma. “Kids identify themselves as soldiers, because they live in war zone communities,” Eddie Bocanegra, the co-founder of Urban Warriors, tells NPR. “They make the parallels between, veterans, you know, carry guns, we carry guns. They got ranks, we got ranks. They got their Army uniforms, we got our gang colors.”
During one recent conversation, Cortes and some teens in his group were discussing what it feels like right before getting shot in a drive-by shooting — the anxiety, sweat and anticipation that hits you right before you think someone’s going to pull the trigger. “And then it turns out to be an ice-cream truck driving by,” Cortes tells NationSwell. “These kids are over-alert and watching their backs, even when they’re in the safest environments. They try to explain that feeling to other people who don’t get it. But I do.” As a former gang member, Bocanegra knows what he’s talking about. At 14, he shot and killed a kid he mistook for a rival gang member, which landed him in prison for 14 years. While doing time, his brother — a decorated Army veteran — told him to seek therapy for the trauma he experienced on the streets and in prison. Bocanegra listened to his brother and sought out counseling. Eventually he started working with anti-violence programs and, out of curiosity, began surveying gang members in 2013 to see who they looked up to. “It all started based on this question we put out with high-risk youths: whom they felt safe and protected with,” Jadhira Sanchez, the director of Urban Warriors, tells NationSwell. “We gave them options such as EMT’s, cops, lawyers, doctors and veterans. And they chose veterans. That’s who they looked up to; that’s who they respected.” For 16 weeks, three different cohorts of 20 teens — separated by sex — are partnered with five veterans. Each Saturday, the teens get to talk to each other about issues they’re currently dealing with. They get to ask questions of and seek guidance from the veterans. A social worker who can help to navigate services, such as applying for college or jobs, sits in on every conversation. All the veterans and case workers are trained in trauma-informed care to help them navigate tense or uncomfortable conversations, but they say the single most effective approach has been simply giving the teens a chance to connect with people with whom they can relate. “We found youth who [talk about] going into the gang world, and they compare that to basic training in the military branch. When you lose your buddy or brother in combat, some people compare that to losing someone on the streets. When you have those comparisons, they open to each other up because they feel on the same level,” Sanchez says. “I had family who were involved with gangs, which means that even if you don’t claim it or wear the colors, you’re [guilty by association],” says Cortes. “Think about being 10 years old and your mom takes you to the good stores, and you see all the cool clothes but you can’t get it because of the colors on it. A 10-year-old has to process that. It’s little things like that.” Urban Warriors participant William Javier can relate to the above. Javier, 17, grew up in Pilsen with an abusive father. He saw his friends join gangs and had to dodge stray bullets countless times. “You could literally die, going across [the street] to get some food, from a random bullet that wasn’t meant for you,” he says. It resulted in him living inside his bedroom — trapped in his home by fear. But one day, tired of being inside and wanting to “be out there,” he thought about joining a gang. “That life slowly starts grabbing at you and pulling you in. And my closest friend started to notice it,” he says. That same friend pushed him into joining the Urban Warriors program two years ago. Javier was the teen who asked Cortes how many people he killed. (The veterans are not required to answer every question.) “I knew he killed someone,” Javier says. “It was still a little [shocking] for some reason. But after that, I started to feel comfortable with him.” Beneficial outcomes of the program have been mostly anecdotal, though Sanchez says they do survey participants before and after they complete the program. But the stories coming out of Chicago’s program are promising, and could be replicated in cities like Los Angeles or New Orleans that are also grappling with gang violence. “I have youth that never wanted to go to college and now want to,” Sanchez says. “That’s a huge victory.” Javier’s involvement in Urban Warriors has even saved his life, he says. “I never saw myself graduating or living at all past freshman year. I saw myself in the grave,” he says. “After Urban Warriors, I saw myself in a better light — more open and confident and positive in life. Now, I’m close to graduating. I’m living happily. And doing the things I’m doing.”
Charlene Mess was having a bad dream. At least, she was acting like she was. As she rocked back and forth, screaming and moaning, her dog, Champ, shot his head up and leapt into action. He pulled off Mess’ sheets and flicked on the room’s lights with his wet nose. It took him a few tries, but when he finally switched it on, there was thunderous applause. Champ was demonstrating his latest trick in front of a room of dog trainers, who also happen to be inmates at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women in New York, about an hour north of Manhattan. “Good boy!” Mess said, jumping up from her makeshift bed, which in reality was a long table, as she fed Champ treats from a kibble pouch that she had belted over her prison uniform. The flipping-on-the-light trick was just one of many that Champ showed off during a recent class at Bedford Hills, where he and Mess participate in Puppies Behind Bars (PBB). The New York–based nonprofit, which operates in six correctional facilities and works with about 140 prisoners, trains inmates to raise service dogs for wounded veterans and first-responders suffering from trauma-related disorders. They also raise and train explosive-detection canines (EDCs) for law enforcement. The benefits of the program are circular: Not only do the dogs go on to serve those who need help, they also positively impact the inmates who raise them from 8-week-old puppies, providing them with a sense of purpose and redemption. According to PBB, many of the puppy-raisers go on to work professionally as dog trainers and groomers after they’re paroled. “Craig makes me feel whole,” says Dunasha Payne, fighting back tears as she speaks about her 2-year-old black lab, which is expected to graduate from PPB and start life as a service dog within the next few weeks. “And I love him so much, and it’s like, I tried my best with my dog, and I put all my personal feeling aside to raise him to the fullest potential that I could. But they make you feel like you’re worth something, and they make you [feel] that you have a purpose in life, and that you’re not just a prisoner, that you’re not just here to do some time.”
A NEED FOR SUPPORT
In 1997, the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility became the first prison in New York to implement Puppies Behind Bars. The program, which is funded through outside donations, initially focused on raising and training seeing-eye dogs. But then came 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts in the Middle East. “Being a New Yorker, living in New York, being there on September 11th, I’ve always thought that those first responders were thanked and thanked and thanked initially, and then they kind of weren’t,” says PPB founder and president Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who once worked on a commission to find employment for low-income New Yorkers under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “They kind of blended into the background, [but they] had a lot of health issues.” It was at that point that Stoga widened PPB’s mission to include the training and deployment of explosive-detection canines and, later, service dogs for traumatized first responders and wounded veterans. “With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raging, I kept thinking, ‘What can I do? What can I do?’” she says. “The answer was that I can help these [inmates] raise service dogs that we can donate to wounded war veterans.”
Along with a handful of other instructors, including former inmates who have gone on to work for PPB, Stoga teaches prisoners how to raise service dogs. She also conducts several group training sessions a year, in which veterans are paired with dogs and learn from the inmate-trainers how to work with them. The program puts 2-month-old puppies, most of which are labrador retrievers, under the watchful eyes of inmates. These devoted doggy caretakers live, sleep and work with the pooches 24/7 until they’ve mastered an industry-standard 85 commands, like opening doors for wheelchair users, plus five more that specifically help sufferers of PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury). Most dogs are able to complete the training program in 12 to 24 months. To date, PBB has put more than 250 to use as guide, service, therapy and companion dogs, plus another 437 have gone on to work with law enforcement as bomb-sniffing dogs. Though the Department of Correction does not track recidivism rates of parolees who have participated in PBB, a DOC spokesperson says it measures success in the soft skills gained by inmates who care for the dogs. “Part of [DOC’s] mission is to prepare individuals for their transition back to the community,” the spokesperson says. “[Puppies Behind Bars] incentivizes good behavior in the facility, as well as giving individuals the opportunity to do something positive for someone else, while learning patience, pride and accomplishment — all of which will benefit them when they reenter society.”
‘WE MANUFACTURE BEST FRIENDS’
The walk through Bedford Hills Correctional Facility — the only maximum-security prison for women in the state — is brimming with reminders of exactly where you are. There may be a few pretty flowers here and there, sure, but it’s all against a backdrop of barbed wire and high fences. “I’ve been here for years,” says a prison security guard. “And let me tell you, this is like no other program. It really works. They are the most well-behaved inmates.” It’s 8:30 in the morning, and Payne is on a turfed field playing fetch with her dog, Craig. Payne has changed her life around since entering prison in 2013. Originally from Queens, she was well-known in local tabloids as “hell on wheels” after mowing down and killing her ex-boyfriend in a jealous rage. She says that everything is different now. She has been part of Rehabilitation Through the Arts, an in-prison arts program that has been shown to dramatically reduce recidivism rates, and is now a trainer with Puppies Behind Bars, which — according to the organization’s mission statement — aims to help those living in prison learn to sacrifice for a bigger cause. Another perk is that inmates who take part in the program can shave six months off their sentence. “I’ve had Craig since he was 8 weeks old. I also have a child at home who is 8 years old, and I left her when she was 3,” says Payne. “And not to compare the two, but for me, I really got my confidence in proving to [the PBB staff] that I can indeed take care of a dog. I felt that my purpose was way more important than just me being a regular average inmate.” Other inmates say the program has fostered in them a passion for helping others. When a first responder was paired with the dog Alice Trappler had raised, she saw it as an opportunity to help a man fighting deep depression. “He shared with us that he felt broken. He didn’t feel at all like he was worthwhile. And he had tried to commit suicide, which to me is heartbreaking,” says Trappler, who’s serving a 25-year-to-life sentence. “My comment to him was that his dog did not think he was broken. She thought he was great, and she thought he was the best thing ever. “We manufacture best friends, because they’re infallible and they love you no matter what.”
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