Friday, four Patriot Paws service dogs graduated with their new veteran owners. It was an extra special ceremony because it marks the tenth anniversary of Patriot Paws working with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The nonprofit places service dogs with disabled veterans.
Two years after Kimberley Heidari was sent to the prison, she started training her first service dog for Patriot Paws. “I trained Pokey on a lot of different things. His ability stuff, foundation stuff, Pokey's an outstanding young man,” said Heidari referring to the dog she is handling.
Heidari said the experience hasn't only given her a companion during her time in prison. It's also given her a new perspective. “Coming into the program I was such a selfish person and coming out of the program I've changed my life. I've changed the way I think of things. I've changed the way I think of other people,” Heidari said.
Saying goodbye to her furry best friend is never easy, but Kimberley said it's worth it. “It means that my purpose here succeeded, that I've succeeded in what I was supposed to do,” said Heidari.
Kimberley is one of 300 offenders at TDCJ who has worked with Patriot Paws.
“We've seen offenders who were otherwise so introverted they never had any self-confidence. They maybe came out of abusive relationships. We're able to put those in this program and give them a sense of accomplishment because that's something that a lot of these ladies have never had,” said Melodye Nelson, region VI regional director at TDCJ.
The partnership between TDCJ and Patriot Paws has allowed the nonprofit to train more dogs at one time, cutting down on the wait for veterans who need their help. “I was in the Navy for 10 years until I was injured,” said Arron Frankum, one of the veterans Patriot Paws has helped.
Frankum was in a car accident in 2008. Because of his injuries, he is confined to a wheelchair.
Thanks to Patriot Paws' service dog Ben, Arron was able to maintain most of his independence.
“He was able to get things for me when I lose them because I'm scatterbrained. So, if I leave my phone somewhere, he could go get it, and just perform those activities of daily living that seem easy, but once you're in a chair they become a little more difficult,” Arron said.
Sadly, Ben passed away in 2016. So Patriot Paws set Arron up with a new pup.
“Pokey chose me last week,” said Frankum.
Kimberley was there to see the pair graduate together Friday.
“I'm so happy for Pokey,” Heidari said.
Thanks to the program, Pokey found his person, Arron found a new best friend and Kimberley found her purpose. “I get out in October and I'm going to go knock on Patriot Paws' door,” said Heidari.
Kimberley is not the only inmate in the program looking into dog training after she is released.
Thirty percent of the offender trainers who paroled found employment in animal-related fields.
TDCJ said less than one percent of them have returned to prison.