Karma Rescue Paws for Life 10th Graduation Ceremony – 9/21/17

Written by: Julie Creed, Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Pura Naturals Pet The alarm went off way too early. The sun was not up and I was already heading out of the driveway in south Orange County to the Lancaster State Prison to experience the Paws for Life graduation as one of Karma Rescues main sponsors with Pura Naturals Pet. I had no idea what to fully expect, although I’d seen videos and saw value in the program. With Paws for Life, canines are pulled out of high kill shelters. The dogs are placed in a maximum state prison where they’re trained and groomed by the inmates. Once the dogs are eligible for graduation, they are gifted to a U.S. Veteran with PTSD. Since members of my family have served in all branches of the military, I was very pleased our company worked with a charity that aids Vet’s through service dogs. Inmates selected to the program were hand selected from essays they had written and had to be non-violent once they had been remanded to jail. As I drove to the prison, I was slightly nervous. Alex, the Director of Karma Rescue and Paws for Life had told me “You’re going to meet some of the nicest murderers.” That comment can be rather unnerving and it’s not something you do every day. It set the tone for a rather unexpected and eventful day. It didn’t become light until I was close to Los Angeles. It started to rain and was a dreary colorless day which seemed to take on the mood of heading to prison. As I pressed on, it became void of civilization.  Miles of mounds of beige hillside and canyons. The only break in the terrain was the residual after effects from the massive fires. The air still smelled of smoke. I was finally at my exit and then once more drove to further desolation. Guard towers appeared on the horizon and walls bore from the ground with heavy razor wire. A small entrance with an armed and massive security guard greeted me. The guard saw my Pura Naturals Pet shirt and cheerily said, “We’ve been expecting you, thanks for your help” and directed me where to park and enter the penitentiary. I hadn’t anticipated so much hospitality. Walking in I had only my car key and ID, I’ve never traveled so lightly. This was the requirement and I followed it and the dress code explicitly. I could not wear colors reserved for inmates. I made sure to wear our bright green staff shirt, incase any havoc ensued so I would not blend in. The entrance of the visitor center was full of nearly a hundred people and a line to be screened.  Dread set in. The program was to start promptly at 10am and there was no way to quickly navigate this crowd in 10 minutes. I then I turned and saw a short woman with bleach blonde hair wearing an avocado green California Department of Corrections uniform and star badge that gleamed from the florescent lights. This was the Assistant Warden who I had met weeks earlier during Labor Day weekend when we unloaded Hurricane Harvey Dogs from the plane. She’d impressively packed a few 50-60 lb. dogs down the planes narrow staircase. Dogs were easily heaved on her wide shoulders like a sack of potatoes. I was relieved she remembered me as well. She shook my hand and gave me a slight hug and said, “let’s move you to the staff line.”  She was equal parts no nonsense and gregarious, you could tell she was well liked by the other Sherriff Deputies and Correctional Guards. I had certainly respected her from our first encounter. I felt like all the eyes in the room were now on me as it was clear others were waiting a long time to visit someone who was incarcerated. I was quickly processed for the event and escorted outside to a fenced in corridor with more cameras, razor wire, and a noticeable hum of an electrical fence. I made a point to not touch anything and kept my hands rigidly to my side as I stood in the center. The sound of the gate locking behind me had a loud finality, one where inmates entering would know this was the point their freedom was gone, and sometimes for forever. With the gate locked, we waited and then the gate at the front slowly opened and a deputy walked me along the concrete yard. There were no trees or greenery in site and the dull gray sky seemed to bleed into the concrete. The only color was the royal blue door to the room where they were having the Paws for Life graduation and the blue classroom seats that faced the podium. I was handed a printed program, one like you would see at a high school graduation. On the back of the program was the Pura Naturals Pet logo and a note of thanks which equally pleased and surprised me. The room was a mix of inmates where you visually saw their yellow prison numbers, plenty of guards along the perimeter, Karma Rescue volunteers, inmate family members, televised media, and a representative from the California State Assembly. Enhancing this was about 20 dogs, some of which were still meandering around. It was a packed room. As I went to an open seat, inmates would get up and shake my hand and thank me for our Pura Naturals Pet products. I took a seat between two inmates that had dogs graduating. Rather than ask how long they had ‘been in the program/incarceration’ I inquired about how many dogs they had trained. The answers proudly came flooding in from all around, 6, 8, 10….and one person piped up, “Our dogs have never looked so good, your product is great.” I smiled and the program started. Warden Asuncion addressed everyone in the room. She was wearing a tailored pantsuit with crimson blazer and her auburn hair cascaded down her back. Her broch along her scarf was her badge. I felt like I was at a PTA meeting. She spoke kindly. Not at all like the hardened visons from the Hollywood movies – this was different, I started to calm down and could feel my breathing returning to normal as I’d been tense since entering the jail. The beginning announcement was touching. A strawberry blonde-haired inmate named Woody came to the microphone and paused. He looked like a balloon that had just lost air, and his prison uniform seemed to take over his shape as his shoulders curled in. He divulged that one of the trainers, his cellmate, who had been sick this past month, passed away merely hours ago. The room was hushed and you could feel the emotion as he spoke and his faint voice cracked. “Ron was so proud to be part of this program. He’d put up with me and my dogs for years and finally became a trainer. This is his first dog. Ron’s dog graduates today.” The air seemed flat. “I know this is a sad day, but we’re also here to celebrate. Ron has gone on to his forever home in the sky.” He then said, “Paw’s Up” and all the inmates and guards raised their hands and said Paws Up in unison. As he continued to speak he fought back the tears and others came to his side for support; an inmate and the Assistant Warden were at his side. I wasn’t expecting to feel emotional, especially for someone I had never met, but there I was feeling teary eyed with everyone in the room – including the seasoned reporters and guards. A “tag-toe parole” is what the inmates behind me murmered, is often the only means for getting out of jail from those in this room. One after another, inmates were called up with their dogs and they would speak to the meaning of the program. Jessie had long corn row braids and glasses that seemed to give him clarity on more than just his vison. The Paws for Life program was his way to make atonement, and that he had a lot to make up for but the Paws for Life program was changing him for the better. Another inmate referenced his many Karma Rescue dogs; from one who would bark and chew at his ankles until he was trained, to one that would steal his bed. He was happy to let the dog have his bed. A younger inmate said he had grown up with animals and that they had always brought him joy – but he had lost his way. He’d been abused and could relate to the abused animals. He said animals have brought him back to care for someone other than himself. It made him happy that the dog he trained was going to a forever home. Anthony was a tatted-up inmate with ink down drawn down his arms and around his neck marking his history of a misguided youth. He was small in stature and big on personality. He’d continually pestered the Warden, Assistant Warden, guards, and everyone in the program to let him join. He asked to be an apprentice when there was no such thing, and openly volunteered to pick up poop. That worked! He picked up poop all over the prison yard and was coined the “Official Pooper Scooper.” That earned a few laughs. He’s now an enthusiastic trainer and beamed as he said his dog is graduating the program today. There were 45 inmate trainers, as each spoke everyone applauded. At times, it was easy to forget this was jail. It was calm and civilized, and there was celebratory cake and punch at the back of the room. The California State Assembly Representative presented the Warden and Karma Rescue with Certificates of Appreciation who were all sitting in special seats at the front of the room. Then he said, “I also have a special Certificate of Appreciation from the State Assembly for Pura Naturals Pet.” As I made my way through the crowd and to the podium, everyone in the room stood up and clapped. I was astounded, as more people said thank you and raved about our grooming products and program involvement. Once I sat back down there was no denying I was the company representative. An inmate sitting on the other side of me was Larry. He had a white goatee and thick black horn-rimmed glasses and pony tail and looked like anyone I might socialize with at the biker bar that was down the canyon by my home. He told his Mother about our products. I thanked him and inquired about his certificate. He was pleased and showed me the certificate and then passed it to the lady in front, who was his Mom. She and the rest of his family had traveled from Santa Barbara. He said, “With the Paws for Life program, I’m giving my family something to be proud of.”  What he said affected me and showed that tough men can be vulnerable. There was much truth in that moment. Closing the ceremony, Associate Warden Woods commanded the room as she spoke. It was easy to tell she truly cared for the inmates, it was a humanizing moment that one may not expect to see for those who are incarcerated. She gave the inmates respect, and they in turn respected her. She called 2 inmates up. They had each been in for a long time. With new legislation from California’s, Governor Jerry Brown, their sentences of no chance for parole was now reduced, so they could eventually become eligible for parole. The family of the one inmate, DeAngelo was called up and the Warden turned the mic over to him and graciously backed away. He referenced his 19 years of incarceration, and proudly introduced his daughter who is now at USC, and a lady with long red hair who has clearly stood by his side. Suddenly, DeAngelo was holding a small black box and dropped down on one knee and proposed. The room went nuts, people cheered, teared up and clapped after she said “YES.” At this point, I’m completely amazed at what is happening, it’s surreal. I look at the media who is equally looking in wonderment as to what just happened. This was not something they were expecting and they can’t believe they have it on film. Even the guards looked happy, as they would for a co-worker, but this was an inmate they watch. Somehow amongst the concrete and razor wire real life had crept in. Once the room calmed down, everyone was allowed to walk around and converse. I became inundated with more positive comments on our products; shampoos improving the dogs coat and skin, Paw Rescue healing paws from all the concrete, and the Ear Cleansing System – “I thought I was cleaning the dog’s ears well until I used your product.” They kept coming in…and it was great to hear how our products were appreciated and used in such an unlikely environment. The inmates and their canines were all being photographed and then I was asked to join a smaller group photo. I suddenly recognized 2 of the dogs as Hurricane Harvey dogs I had sat with on the tarmac and calmed as they were highly stressed from their flight out of Texas. The one white pit mix with distinguishing black spots around her eyes and a heart shaped black nose wagged her full body and would not sit still for the photo. She kept leaping towards me. The trainer said, “I have not seen her this way” and I beamed and quipped “We’re old friends – she remembers me.” I then sat of the linoleum floor and was barreled over by this big happy 50 lb. pup and a multitude of dog kisses. My heart was happy and I could not help but smile. As I looked up, one of the inmates who was standing over me and the dog said “Wow, I think she’s YOUR dog.”  I felt tears coming and pierced my lips together. I let out a long exhale and said “While I love this dog and have such a connection to her, it does my heart good to know she will go to a Vet. You take good care of her.” All I hear from that point was “Yes, Ma’am.” The camera was raised an everyone hoisted an arm and hollered the chant that was ever prevalent “Paws Up.” One inmate joked how he liked the scent of our shampoos, and while he knew people could use it too, he was not going out in the prison yard smelling of lavender and chamomile. People erupted in laughter, in a place where laughter was little, the dogs and our product were changing that and providing some harmony. An inmate said that even if you receive a dog, you don’t get a bigger cell, so it’s nice now having the dogs smell good. Finally, I could converse with Jon, a rather large man whose frame could fill the doorway. He has the California 3-strikes and 6 life sentences and is the main trainer who has been with the program since inception.  Another inmate brought me some cake and said “If you need a fork you’ll have to get it from the guard.” A quick reminder we were all in jail. Jon’s eyes crinkled up and then said in the most honest and heart-felt way “I can’t begin to thank you and your company for what you are doing. I was with this program when there was no money for anything, and no one would see that there could be good in here. People don’t care about inmates. I would worry about how to care for my dog. Now the shelves have product, and it makes me so happy.” He became visibly shaken and continued with “a piece of my heart is with each dog I train.”  I had the biggest lump in my throat hearing how important our products had become, and I was proud Pura Naturals Pet could be a part of such an amazing program. All of these men spoke of how the program has helped to bring them honor and give back to society. No matter their race or background – dogs have brought them all together and Paws for Life is clearly making a positive impact, and Pura Naturals Pet has helped make a difference. While there was sadness in having their dogs graduate, there was also pride in knowing they were getting out – the dogs were going home, to their new forever homes. As I left the facility I pondered the day. From such a surrounding void from the outside these inmates had hope - people can change, and sometimes it takes a dog. It was an overwhelming day where everyone in the room was forever changed. The guard I had met at the main gate in the morning searched my car and asked me “Did you bring Kleenex, it gets pretty emotional.” Oh how right he was. It was nice to see how the guards I met positively acknowledged the good of the program. I was also proud that the Warden and assistant Warden were strong and empowering women who had the creative vision to try this program that is now replicated in other prisons. I walked through the doors appreciating the program, but apprehensive and slightly nervous to be going to a maximum state prison. I left knowing our company had contributed to good. Good for the dogs, good for the inmates, and good for the families and Veterans who will be gifted a Karma Rescue and Paws for Life canine. I wished the entire Pura Naturals Pet team, our retailers and customers could experience what I was privileged to witness.  Paws Up!   “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than you love yourself” – Josh Billings   #  #  #   ABOUT KARMA RESCUE Karma Rescue is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving animals in need by finding them permanent homes and providing the resources for successful companionship. Through education, we instill the critical need for spay/neuter and offer guidance to strengthen the animal-human bond. Our vision is to help create a compassionate society which provides safety, refuge and protection for all animals. www.KarmaRescue.org  https://www.facebook.com/KreateKarma/videos/1545837002121599/   ABOUT PURA NATURALS Our mission is simple: The desire to help pets live longer, healthier lives. All of our products are made in the USA, we use American factories that engage in environmentally friendly practices and comply with product quality standards and strict guidelines. This passion and philosophy flows through everything we do, making it easy to put your pet’s health first. www.PuraNaturalsPet.com