Saturday, October 27, 2007


Finding hope in unexpected places
My cellmate and I are helping others

By Charles Huckelbury For the Monitor
June 17. 2007 10:00AM

Living in a prison cell is always a battle with clutter, but my cell is a bit more crowded than usual these days since Joey moved in. No, Joey isn't your typical slug who doesn't know how to do time. He's a Labrador retriever, just shy of two years old, smarter than most of the guys I hang around with, and still full of puppy mischief in ways I would love to describe if I could be sure his trainers weren't reading this.
But there's much more to Joey than cute, something I discovered when I was fortunate enough to be among the men selected to participate in Pathways to Hope, a national program conceived by Sister Pauline Quinn and implemented here at the state prison to train service dogs for people with specific disabilities.
After careful vetting by the administration, those of us who made the cut as handlers underwent an introduction to Dog Training 101, courtesy of Gail Fisher and her staff at All Dogs Gym and Inn in Manchester. Dogs had been my constant companions before I came to prison, but the type of training Gail introduced opened my eyes to possibilities I had never considered.

Our primary job was to teach the dogs basic commands (e.g. sit, stay, down, come) and socialize them in order to prepare them for the more intensive and precise training they would need to undergo prior to being assigned to particular clients. Along the way, we also taught them other things that were
fun for us and the dogs, things like retrieving specific objects from a collection, turning lights on and off, and removing items of clothing.

Joey was ahead of the curve when it came to removing clothing. Unfortunately, before he perfected his technique, removing my jacket, for example, also resulted in numerous surprises: First he removed my jacket's cuffs, then the collar. Imagine a 75-pound animal working like crazy because he knows he'll get a treat at the end of the exercise, and you'll have some idea of how that must have looked.

Gail and her staff regularly check our progress. They assign us additional tasks to teach the dogs, since it quickly became obvious that they were smart enough to accomplish their original goals in spite of our own limitations in training techniques. Their progress has been amazing, because they are incredibly smart.

A year and a half into the program the dogs are getting ready to graduate and leave for their specific training, which will naturally create a huge hole until we have three more to continue the process. But the consolation, of course, is the knowledge that they will be going to someone who needs them far more than we do. For example, for every soldier killed in Iraq, at least eight more are wounded, many critically. What greater service could these dogs provide than helping those men and women who have given so much for the rest of us?
It is impossible to convey what being a part of this program has meant for us in here. In an environment that ridicules affection, where claims of loyalty are only lip service to expediency, and where the only beauty is found in a three-hour visit with my wife twice weekly, Joey has added a dimension to my life that I never would have expected.

I came to prison when I was 27. I am now 61. By traditional standards, I would hardly be described as lucky, and yet I am. Never have I smiled or laughed more than since Joey has come to live with me. Never have I felt such satisfaction in being able to do something worthwhile. And never have I felt such a sense of accomplishment than when looking into those soulful eyes - even when I know he's hustling me for an extra treat.

Pathways to Hope is thus the most appropriate name of this program. While I probably don't share a common religious faith with the people Joey will eventually help, we do share a common hope for a brighter future. And it will be brighter in no small measure because this program makes it possible for us to give what we can to make another person's life more rewarding.

If Joey can help one wounded soldier walk again, If he can help one blind person navigate the streets and shops in Concord safely, all of us will be better for the experience.

By allowing us to be a part of something much bigger than prison, Pathways to Hope therefore defines us in terms of our potential as human beings and not as mere statistics or, worse, the last bad thing we did. I can't make yesterday better, but because of this astonishing program, with Joey's help, I can improve someone else's tomorrow.

(Charles Huckelbury is serving a murder sentence at the state prison.)

------ End of article
For the Monitor

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