MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It’s already November. Kyria Henry graduates from West Virginia University with a multidisciplinary studies degree in less than a month. She’s got exams to study for and papers to write.
“I’m stressed,” she says. “I’m a perfectionist, a worrier, and graduation is a really hard day.”
Only Henry has a different kind of graduation ceremony on her mind – one that involves eight dogs and a federal prison.
Henry, who is from northern Virginia, is the founder and deputy executive director of the paws4people foundation, which places highly-trained assistance dogs with clients who need the canine companionship to help ease their physical, mental or behavioral disabilities.
It’s a concept she conceived when she was just 12 years old and intent on dragging her Golden Retriever to the local nursing home to visit patients. One of them, a woman the staff claimed had never spoken, started talking to her dog.
Since then, Henry’s big-hearted idea has grown into a non-profit corporation that spans seven states (including West Virginia) and has certified more than 70 assistance dogs.
And this month, eight of those dogs are leaving their trainers – the female prisoners at the U.S. Penitentiary-Hazelton – for home.
Three will live with Iraqi War veterans, three with physically-limited children, one with a retired police officer and one – Lilly – with Candace Reel, a special education teacher in Concord, N. C.
Reel’s students are severely disabled, most wheelchair-bound and non-verbal, but their classroom is housed inside a mainstream elementary school, so acceptance and interaction are a delicate dance. Dogs help.
“They totally bridge the gap between my kids and the rest of the school,” Reel says.
And Reel knows. Henry has already placed one dog in her classroom, a retriever named Lanie. Lanie’s presence motivated Reel’s students to achieve developmental milestones no one ever expected them to reach, and became a kind of school mascot.
Training for dogs like Lanie and Lilly – educational/rehabilitative assistance dogs – can cost up to $30,000. But Reel and her students didn’t have to hand over a penny. Everything was paid for through paws4people fundraising.
For clients, paws4people can be the difference between a life and a good life. For Henry, paws4people was the difference between being a busy college student and a really busy college student. Most semesters, she’s taken 12 credits and worked more than 40 hours, traveling the eastern seaboard with dogs and clients.
It’s meant missing a lot of classes along the way, but her professors have been mostly supportive. A few, including Jane Donavan, have been so impressed with Henry’s enthusiasm and drive, they’ve even volunteered with paws4people.
“She is a remarkable young woman who found her calling early in life and is already well on her way to an extraordinary career,” Donovan says.
While many of Henry’s fellow graduates will spend the winter searching for work, she’s already got her own business, one that – with the help of her executive director dad and a burgeoning base of volunteers – has grown exponentially despite the economy, and benefited countless clients.
“We’ve taught nine-week-old puppies to turn on lights, to read commands off cue cards, to open refrigerators and retrieve what’s inside,” she says. “Each dog is customized for the client. They all have different skill sets when they leave.”
But the most important skill – the ability to connect with a client – is one they can’t teach. It just has to happen.
And at the November graduation ceremony, for one client, it did, when service dog Raider jumped into the air to give his new owner – a retired police officer – a high five.
Henry grinned and clapped.
“You can’t tell me that’s not valuable,” she says.
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