• Lauren Burke

Summer Vacations, part 2

At 7:45 am Tuesday morning, Jill, Max and Sumner came and picked us up for our Portland trip!

I hadn’t ever been to Portland, so I was really excited to be going, and even more so because this was a dog-related trip. Sumner is an Early Alert Canines dog, he is a golden retriever and was bred and raised to be a CCI dog. He was raised at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility just south of Portland, Oregon.

… Though, I suppose I should start this story a little further back… Last summer at the ADI conference, I got to meet the most incredible woman. Sister Pauline is the woman who started all of the prison puppy raising programs. I had a few opportunities to speak with her before I had any idea who she was, but on the last day, she got to give a little talk. I cried almost the whole time. She wrapped it up by sharing that this would probably be her last conference, as she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Hearing her talk about the impact of prison puppy raising programs really got to me, and gave me a crazy idea to buy a motorhome and visit all of the different prison programs across the country and meet some of the people whose lives have been changed by it. Do some sort of interviews, video or just writing, and do a blog or a documentary about it, maybe eventually write a book.

I quickly learned after the conference how difficult it is to get into these programs as an outsider, and how much more difficult it is to publish anything about them. It didn’t deter me though, I just knew it would take a little more time and a little more knowledge of the world of prisons and puppy raising programs.

When Max and Sumner graduated in March of 2019, I got to meet Heather, who is the facilitator of the Coffee Creek Puppy Raising Program (CCPRP). I didn’t get to talk to her much, but it was a first touch. I didn’t really realize what she did at the time. I met her again in April of 2019 at a CCI graduation, which was another touch, where I got her email and we got to exchange some photos of dogs. CCPRP has raised three of our dogs officially, and Heather raised a fourth, so the inmates helped with that dog, too. So of 57 teams and 55ish dogs EAC has placed, four were raised through this program.

Jill, Max’s mom, really wanted to try and visit the facility and meet the incredible women who have raised so many service dogs and changed so many lives, including theirs. Max is 18, and is working on legally transitioning to be male. He has two older brothers, the eldest of which also has diabetes, and also had a diabetes alert dog. Captain was also a golden retriever diabetes alert dog, and passed away earlier this year. Jill is so grateful for Max to have Sumner, just as she was for her elder son to have Captain. Having a dog to help take care of your child’s life-threatening condition can be such an incredible thing for a parent. The dog can give you such peace of mind you never thought possible. Jill volunteers with us a lot, and really helps me get a whole different perspective on grant writing— I have the first person, “my dog save my life” view, while she has the “I don’t worry my child will die, and my child has so much more confidence because of his incredible dog” view. Both are valid, both are important, both are moving, yet they’re so different, and both needed!

Jill set the whole thing up, and somehow along the way, invited me. We got all the security clearances, we got background checks, the whole nine yards. The prison part of the trip was planned like six months in advance! For weeks I was eagerly telling people “I’m going to prison!!” (Because that was more exciting to me than a weekend on the Outer Banks with my best friend… #priorities)

Getting to Portland on Tuesday night, we had a nice quiet dinner with Heather, and Sumner was reunited with his puppy raiser. He spent a lot of time with Heather, as she was his “puppy starter.” He spent his first two months (8 weeks old until 4 months old) with Heather, and spent one week a month with her outside of the facility until his recall date, when he was about 18 months old. As Heather came walking up the stairs at our hotel with Max, Sumner and Ricki were inside with me. Ricki was lounging on the dog bed, but Sumner went running to the door— he could hear her voice. He got all wiggly and excited, and was wiggling all over the place when she got inside. “Reunited and it feels so good!”

Did I mention we got to meet one of the puppies??

On Wednesday, we visited the International Test Rose Garden and did some shopping (no sales tax in Oregon!). We had dinner at a cute Mexican place, and had some really good margaritas.

Then Thursday was the big day! We were at the Facility from 8:45 until about 11:45, and it wasn’t nearly enough time. We went around the room and introduced ourselves. The ladies shared how long they’d been in the program (7 months to 17 years!), and what their “day job” was at the prison. I got to give the elevator pitch about EAC and give updates from the other clients who have their other dogs. Max got to talk about how much he loves Sumner and how grateful he is for all the inmates. Jill and I cried most of the time. One woman shared about her diabetic brother, and hoped he would want to apply for one of our dogs.

I was sitting in a room in a medium-security prison, looking at the 15-ish prisoners in front of me. When I imagine inmates, I think of these hardened, scary looking people. What I saw in front of me were 15 normal, beautiful women. Sure, a few of them looked a little rough around the edges. But most of them looked like me, Heather, and Jill. They had their hair done, and their makeup done. A few of them were absolutely beautiful, model status beautiful. Most of them were white, middle-class looking women. And not just in the program— the whole prison! There were a lot of elderly women, there was a group off to the side as we left who were in wheelchairs on oxygen. Some of them were overweight, some were skinny, but all looked like normal people.

Of course we didn’t get to know all the details of why there were in jail, but we knew the minimum sentence to be a part of the puppy program was 5 years, and we knew most of the women were in for life (which means 25 years in Oregon). We learned that some were involved in domestic violence, and many grew up in unhappy and unhealthy homes. But all the women in the puppy raising program were selflessly giving back.

These women take in these puppies, raise them, nurture them, and bond with them for 16-20 months, and then never see these dogs again. They get to see one picture of the dog with the new handler at graduation, but they don’t get to keep the photo— they see it once, and then never again. They get a photo of the dog hung on the wall with a certificate of appreciation, so they get to see the dog’s face every day, but generally they don’t get updates from the handler.

I can’t imagine bonding so much with a dog and then knowing I’ll never see it again. Ricki’s puppy raisers follow me on Instagram and Facebook, and I send them more personal updates every once in a while. We got to meet them at graduation, and eventually I want to plan a weekend to go see them and meet their other dog. But these women fully expect to never see their dogs ever again.

Heather didn’t tell the women we were coming. It was a total surprise, and we had no idea what to expect. The inmate who spent the most time with Sumner had just learned that one of the other dogs she started was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, so she was having a really hard time. She was already in the room when we walked in, and Sumner went right to her. She handed off the dog she had to another woman, and sat on the floor with Sumner in her lap. We all cried. She never thought she would see this dog ever again, and how here he is, in all his Golden glory, with the human he was placed with. She got to meet Max and hear stories of Sumner helping him. She got to hear stories I told of other program dogs saving lives of young children and teens and myself. All the women know of Early Alert Canines, and knew it had something to do with diabetes, but none of them really knew what our dogs do. We were both high that morning, and both dogs were alerting the whole time. From the high, then from the coming down, and then I went low, and then I went back up. In three hours, Ricki probably alerted a half dozen times. Sumner isn’t as aggressive an alerter as Ricki, and he was distracted with all his people, but he still got a few of them. The ladies kept saying how incredible these dogs are, and how glad they were to learn about them. I’m so grateful we got to go and meet them, and hear their stories, and share with them the great things their dogs are doing.

In order to be in the puppy raising program, inmates have to be on their best behavior and not have a single mark against them. The PRP is the most difficult program to be in, and it can be taken away in an instant. The ladies were sharing with us what a sense of accountability the puppies can be. Someone makes a snide remark and you want to snap back, or slap them? You can’t, or you lose your dog. It allows them to change their behavior and learn how to work together. Even when you hate one of the other women in the program, you have to learn how to put your differences aside and work for the greater good of the puppies. In the other jobs in the prison, if you hate someone enough, you just get a different job. In the outside world, you have to learn how to deal with difficult people, and you have to learn how to get along. Being in the puppy program teaches them skills they may not have otherwise learned.

The program is also an incredible place to raise a puppy. It allows you so many opportunities to work through challenges that other puppy raisers outside don’t have. And it's an incredible place for the women: 100% of them who have been released haven’t ended up back in prison.

Handsome Sumner and Ricki, always grumpy.

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For the past few decades, a person with diabetes’ measure of how they’ve been doing has been their hemoglobin A1c. Sometimes called HbA1c or just A1c, this test measures your averaged blood glucose ov

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