Youth inmates learn compassion from four-legged friends
Feb. 23, 2012 at 4 p.m.
Updated Feb. 23, 2012 at 8:24 p.m.
For inmates at the Victoria Regional Juvenile Justice Center, their time spent incarcerated is less than hospitable.
Cold concrete walls surround them. Their uniforms serve as scarlet letters of the crimes they have committed. Cameras and guards are positioned to monitor every move.
Against this setting, the last things many people would expect the inmates to learn are love and compassion.
But that is exactly what is happening, thanks to the help of a new rehabilitation program and a rambunctious brown, black and tan 2-year-old daschund/terrier mix named Alice.
A collaboration between Victoria Adopt-A-Pet Center and the Juvenile Justice Center, the pilot Dream Seekers Animal Rescue and Training program began Feb. 8.
The program seeks to teach the incarcerated youth about care, safety and training in hopes they will develop character traits of patience, tolerance, responsibility, accountability, dependability, compassion and empathy.
"Our hope is they look at it like a positive thing and progress through the levels and take care of the dog," said Pama Hencerling, chief juvenile probation officer at the Juvenile Justice Center. "Growing up, some of these kids come from homes where nobody cares for them. These pets give them unconditional love."
The program is an extension of the Juvenile Justice Center's already-established community service program where the youth inmates volunteer at the Adopt-A-Pet center on Wednesdays.
"We thought it would be a good way to get two community organizations working together," said Carol Klages, president of the Adopt-A-Pet board, "and we're trying to give animals a second chance, and we certainly want to give kids a second chance."
Hencerling estimated there are four similar youth-pet programs throughout the state, but most are day programs, and none are in the Crossroads.
Devin Olguin, of Williamson County, and DeAndra Moffett, of Dallas County, both 16 and participants in the Juvenile Center's long-term residential program, received the honor of being Alice's first trainers.
Although the boys signed releases allowing the newspaper to interview them and use their pictures for the story, Hencerling said she could not reveal what crimes the boys had committed.
However, Hencerling said all youth at the facility had committed at least a Class B misdemeanor.
Devin and DeAndra were selected to be Alice's trainers after writing the most compelling essays about why they should be chosen for the position.
Devin won the essay contest, while DeAndra came in second place, but the decision was made to make DeAndra the assistant trainer and alternate the responsibilities for caring for Alice between the two boys.
Upon his arrival at the facility, Devin said, things were rough. His stay at the facility was prolonged by policy violations.
For him, Alice proved to be a godsend.
Rescued from the Victoria City/County Animal Shelter, Alice is known to many as a sweet little dog who enjoys cuddling in laps, which she did many times this week.
"I didn't know if she was going to like me or not. I didn't think we would get along," said a tattooed Devin as he stroked Alice's fur while she lay contentedly in his lap. "She was just looking up at me. I picked her up, and she started licking me."
The two quickly became inseparable.
Every day, Devin is responsible for taking Alice to the bathroom; making sure she has adequate food and water; taking her to class with him; making sure she gets enough exercise; and, most importantly, providing her with love and attention.
Excerpts from Devin's journal tell the story of his growth as an animal trainer and the growth of his relationship with Alice:
Day 1: "Working with Alice today was wonderful. I already taught her how to heel, go to her kennel ... She's a real fast learner. She also knows when to sit on your lap and when to get off. I'm still working on her sitting."
Day 8: "The best and smartest dog I've ever seen. We just need to work on keeping her focused. Other than that, she's great."
Day 11: "Well, Alice loves me, and I love her 10-times more. We got a wonderful bond. She's got her paws on me right now wagging her tail. I'm really going to be sad if I have to give her up and not take her home."
As Alice playfully licked his hand, Devin said she has taught him responsibility .
"I don't see her as my friend. I see her as my daughter," he said. "She has really opened up my heart and made me a calm person."
Since Alice's arrival, Devin and DeAndra have worked together to make Alice homemade toys as well as a customized pillow bed, a tremendous feat for the boys who said they previously did not get along.
"I really wanted to learn something from it. I've seen so many dogs get hurt," said DeAndra. "They're just like us. They need love and attention."
While DeAndra said Alice has motivated him to get his life together and pursue a career as an attorney, Devin said he now wants to pursue a career as a veterinarian. In the meantime, he plans to volunteer at an animal shelter back in Williamson County.
"We hope they will feel like they have accomplished something," said Regina Perez, compliance director at the Juvenile Center. "Our hope is they look at it like a positive thing and progress through their levels to be able to take care of the dog."
Alice's presence has also had a calming effect on the boys' entire dormitory, resulting in fewer policy violations, said Kelly Arnecke, Juvenile Center facility administrator.
Juvenile Center staff said they plan to bring in another dog and expand the program to the girls' program in March.
The program also has proved beneficial for Alice, who receives training and socialization skills while waiting to be adopted by a loving family.
"It's gone a lot better than I thought. Every time I check in to talk to someone at the center, all is well," said Klages.
If Alice has not been adopted by the end of the boys' program, she will most likely remain at the center.
Devin, who is approaching his release date on Wednesday, is hoping he can adopt Alice. However, he said, financial issues will probably prevent that.
"I'm probably going to cry when I have to give her up. I'm hoping I can adopt her, but I don't know whether my mom has the money to do that," Devin said. "I want to help her get adopted. I know the next people to adopt her are going to be very happy."
Until then, he is making the most of their days together.
"She is there for me if I'm mad or sad," said Devin, who swore he will not do anything to get arrested again. "It's true - dogs are man's best friends."