A Second Chance

A Second Chance Is One Of The Great Gifts Life Has To Offer
Mary Ruth, (Retired) Director of Training

One of the great gifts you can receive in life is a second chance. I remember a time in my life when things seemed so difficult. A time when faith seemed all but lost. Faith lost not only in myself, but faith lost in those around me. Fortunately, I had a very special friend that picked me up and helped carry me through my crisis. That friend made me a better person, not a perfect person; but a better person. My friend gave me hope that even when I had messed up in life, there was always the possibility of change.

We had several goals as we started the prison program. Our primary goal was the ability to serve our clients in a more effective manner, to retain the high skill level we desired in our dogs, yet decrease the time necessary to do so. An equal goal was to make a positive impact on the offenders/trainers. Another thought was the relief it would bring our small organization because of the decreased workload (freeing our advanced trainers to spend more time with client training). A personal thought was to return the favor my friend had given me, the gift of a second chance.

With these goals in mind we started our journey. Anytime you start a new program there are many variables, so many turns and twists as you make your way along unknown paths. I’m going to be honest and admit we had all sorts of preconceived notions of what the journey might entail. I personally thought I might run into attitudes, disrespect for our volunteers, closed minds, selfishness, and manipulation. After all, that’s the way offenders are portrayed on TV. I certainly didn’t anticipate what an impact this program was going to make in my life.

So we started our new adventure. The first training session or two seemed awkward as we worked with the offenders trying to figure out who had natural timing, who had talent, and who we thought we could work with effectively. Our mindset in the beginning was to find the best way to work with the offenders/trainers for their good and for ours. I walked out after the first few training sessions knowing the answer to that question. I would work with them as I would any person, starting with a clean slate and an open mind. All the preconceived notions went out the door.

What I did not expect was a respectful, attentive, eager-to-work, do anything you asked for group. I did not expect them to work as a team. I didn’t expect dedication. I didn’t expect them to be self-motivated. When, to our surprise, these qualities were displayed, I thought, okay, they are trying to impress us, but will it last? I had been told programs will start out okay, but interest is lost and participants fall by the wayside. Truthfully, a few of our trainers did fall by the wayside. Fortunately, the core group of trainers haven’t backed off at all and have, in fact, improved on a weekly basis.

It’s not unusual when working with a group to find those who need constant prodding and persuasion to keep them on track. Not so with this group. They didn’t need my motivation, they brought their own. They wanted to learn, they wanted to help, they were willing to give and work at any level. From the minute they greet us at the door, it’s “what do you need?” They come to class when they have great excuses for not being there--migraine headaches and other physical aliments do not stop them from attending or from participating. One particular offender was obviously not feeling well, and when I told her to just skip the day and go back to her room, her reply was, “No, I’ll be fine.” They consider it a privilege to work, to train, and to learn.

They were willing to stand in front of a group and try new and unfamiliar exercises. Exercises that often left them feeling foolish or frustrated, (you know, all the typical beginning dog things that make you feel like you have two left hands). They were willing to try when it made them look good and try when they looked not so good. They persisted, with their goal ever in front of them. This isn’t just a job for them, it’s a passion. Maybe that’s why they inspire our organization so much. We carry a passion in our hearts that many cannot understand. That same passion lies in the heart of the majority of our offenders/trainers.

Their dedication causes us to rise to new levels; they’re motivation is contagious. Their desire to learn more and be better is contagious. Their sense of laying it all on the line is contagious. Needless to say, they are a contagious group of people.

During class I tell them what to do in a particular situation. Of course, we know things seldom go as planned. When the situation wasn’t as planned or changed and became more challenging, there was no whining, no “I couldn’t because ...“ They do the best they can with what is available to them. They are creative, tenacious people who work things out and work together for the betterment of the program.

I couldn’t finish this article without saying I also did not expect to find a staff so caring and supportive. Our program case worker, Ron Kukulka, has put in countless extra hours and work to make this program viable--coming in early and leaving late to allow the dogs extra play time, reading countless training journals and supervising dog activities of all types. We couldn’t do this program without the man fondly know as “Mr. K.”

Jane Spalding, our housing unit manager, has been supportive, encouraging and many times has gone that extra mile for us. Assistant superintendent, Larraine Lamb, who helped start this program, has worked tirelessly for the benefit of the program, the dogs, and the offenders. I am also grateful for the group of correction officers that have gone out of their way to be helpful.

It’s important to understand I’m not a Pollyanna type of person. It’s not that I only see the good in everyone and can’t recognize their weaknesses and flaws. It’s not that past mistakes instantly go away; however, I do see good in this group of people. I see dedication, willingness to try, willingness to change, and a goal to improve. Isn’t that the best any of us can hope for, to be better today than we were yesterday?

C.H.A.M.P., Inc. has always been about empowering. Our goal has been, and will remain, helping people reach their full potential and gain a sense of success. Hopefully this is the gift we give our offenders/trainers. I know it’s a goal they are helping us achieve, both as an organization and on a personal level.

(Originally published in C.H.A.M.P.ion Connection, Volume 3, No. 10, Spring/Summer 2003)