‘You Are Not Your Mistakes’
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‘You Are Not Your Mistakes’

Harper, a labradoodle trained at Lakin Correctional, with Julia, 14.  “Wherever Julia needs extra supervision, companionship, responsibility or a bridge to human connection, Harper is there,” says Julia’s mother.

Harper, a labradoodle trained at Lakin Correctional, with Julia, 14. “Wherever Julia needs extra supervision, companionship, responsibility or a bridge to human connection, Harper is there,” says Julia’s mother. Photo by Joan Brady

“She was one of the most disagreeable people I had ever met,” says paws4people Chairman and COO, Terry Henry, remembering his reaction to meeting Rebecca at Lakin Correctional Center, more than three years ago.

Seeing her now with her earnest smile and a well-behaved puppy happily nestled in her lap, it’s hard to imagine the Rebecca he describes.

The old Rebecca had a nickname she chooses not to explain, because it reflects a part of the past that she doesn’t want to talk about. And it was the old Rebecca who committed murder during a roadside altercation. That same bad attitude she had in her early 20s got her kicked out of the “paws4prisons” assistant dog training program in her 40s, three years ago.

Rebecca’s childhood is devoid of memories of birthday parties, school concerts and family trips. The second of four children, what Rebecca recalls is abuse, as far back as she can remember, the only one of her siblings, she says, to suffer at the hand of her mother.

It’s hard not feel the pain with her as she recalls how she felt when she was fired from the paws4prisons program. “[I was] embarrassed, ashamed and hurt.” And then she adds, “It was life changing though and now I’m thankful for it.”

After 19 years in prison, she had a goal. She was determined to get back into the assistance dog training program. Rebecca is serving a life sentence, without the possibility of parole. She wanted her time to mean something. After a year of continuous re-application, Rebecca was conditionally reinstated.

She describes how it felt to come back, now two years ago. “I was still embarrassed. … I felt like I was still being judged.” But then she realized, not only was she not being judged, but “they were trying to help me to understand myself. … They wanted to show me how to change.”

This support was new for Rebecca, “It was the first time I felt like someone cared about me. It’s not easy to feel deserving, when no one had ever cared before.”

Learning to accept caring support was just one of her challenges. Cece Miller, Director of the paws4prisons program, really pushed her to grow; trainers have to pass a rigorous academic curriculum that includes tests and essays. They must become proficient public speakers. And they must be able to take direction and correction and work with others.

Two years after that reinstatement, Rebecca has earned her role as a leader in the program says Cece Miller, Director, paws4prisons. “I am very proud of her and I have loved watching her grow.”

Rebecca relishes the opportunity to help others. “They have a story. They have problems. [I can] help to teach them to be better people.”

For her, it’s not as much about the dogs she trains, although that’s very important. What touches her the most is “watching the other girls’ faces… watching them grow and heal [because of the dogs they have trained.]”

Julia, 14, is on hand to show the trainers how well she is doing with Harper, a Labradoodle who was trained at Lakin. Julia has a genetic disorder which causes abnormal blood vessel malformations to grow in her brain. She has been through four surgeries to date, to stop brain hemorrhages.

“Harper fills the holes in Julia’s life,” Julia’s mother says. “Wherever Julia needs extra supervision, companionship, responsibility or a bridge to human connection, Harper is there.”

Julia would not speak to the audience, but happily took center stage to show off her assistance dog, Harper.

Rebecca, who met Julia before she was matched with Harper, describes how she felt when Julia began demonstrating. “At that moment, you are thinking, well just think if she didn’t have that dog, she would probably still be closed up. And now… she is so outgoing, happy and confident. [she has] self respect and self esteem… [it] touches your heart.”

And Rebecca herself has touched the heart of Terry Henry.

“I have never witnessed a more dramatic change in a person than the change I have witnessed in Rebecca. ... The world is now a much better place and Rebecca has only begun to have an effect.”

With the caring motivation of paws4people, Rebecca has learned a critical lesson: “You are not your mistakes.”

Julia, 14, is on hand to show the trainers how well she is doing with Harper, a Labradoodle who was trained at Lakin. Julia has a genetic disorder which causes abnormal blood vessel malformations to grow in her brain. She has been through four surgeries to date, to stop brain hemorrhages.

“Harper fills the holes in Julia’s life,” Julia’s mother says. “Wherever Julia needs extra supervision, companionship, responsibility or a bridge to human connection, Harper is there.”

Julia would not speak to the audience, but happily took center stage to show off her assistance dog, Harper.

Rebecca, who met Julia before she was matched with Harper, describes how she felt when Julia began demonstrating. “At that moment, you are thinking, well just think if she didn’t have that dog, she would probably still be closed up. And now… she is so outgoing, happy and confident. [she has] self respect and self esteem… [it] touches your heart.”

And Rebecca herself has touched the heart of Terry Henry.

“I have never witnessed a more dramatic change in a person than the change I have witnessed in Rebecca. ... The world is now a much better place and Rebecca has only begun to have an effect.”

With the caring motivation of paws4people, Rebecca has learned a critical lesson: “You are not your mistakes.”