By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
GATESVILLE - Rhonda Lee spent seven years in the Crain Unit women's correctional facility for a drug-related offense. Her additional two-year parole ended Tuesday.
She celebrated her "freedom day" by returning to the Gatesville correctional complex in a much different role from that in which she'd arrived.
Lee is now employed full-time by the nonprofit, Rockwall-based organization Patriot Paws. She visited the maximum-security Lane Murray Unit to hand over Rockxi, the spunky black Lab service dog she's been training, to her new owner during a canine graduation ceremony.
"It gave me a chance to give back," Lee said following the celebration, which included a trick demonstration by current trainee dogs and their incarcerated trainers. "It gave me the confidence that I can do anything."
Lee began training service canines during her own incarceration. Patriot Paws dogs live 24 hours every day for a year or more with their trainers in their cells, with the exception of regular outings to avoid institutionalization. Once the dogs are assessed as ready for service, they are paired with a disabled veteran.
The dogs make the matches, Patriot Paws owner and chief executive Lori Stevens said.
"One of the keys is that we let the dogs pick the veterans," she said, "two to three days after meeting with them. We watch."
Three dogs graduated from Patriot Paws training during Tuesday's ceremony. Two disabled veterans and one disabled civilian with a chronic illness, an exception to the program's policy, traveled to Gatesville one week prior to meet and begin training with the dogs they'll take home today.
Over the course of that week, for example, Stevens said, a yellow Labrador retriever named Maverick "had the patience and curiosity to work with Juan."
Staff Sgt. Juan Amaris, currently assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, lost both of his hands and suffered severe burns during a truck explosion in Iraq in 2006.
Amaris, 29, applied for a dog a little more than a year ago and hopes that Maverick will help him regain some of his independence.
"If I drop something, I'm not going to have to rely on someone to pick it up," he said, adding that his prosthetics aren't particularly agile.
Patriot Paws dogs are trained to get help during emergencies; recognize and avert symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; pick up and retrieve items; open and close doors; pull wheelchairs; help with chores, such as laundry; and take off shoes and shocks.
Maverick comes with one additional benefit, Amaris said. His kids, ages 6 and 11, can't wait for a dog.
LaQuita Davis, 27, can relate, she said. She's been incarcerated at Lane Murray since she was 16 for conspiracy to commit capital murder and passed a rigid application and interview process to become a trainer just six months ago.
Being with the dogs gives her something to focus on, she said, and she's planning to work as a trainer upon her eventual parole.
"This is something I want to do."
About 20 inmates are currently training puppies and dogs in Gatesville.
The women involved in the program have been successful due to hard work, Lane Murray head warden Melodye Nelson said.
Eleven women have been paroled since Patriot Paws began in 2006. Ten are working in dog-related fields, and the recidivism rate is zero, according to information from the organization.
The program is 100 percent publicly funded and looking for donations and volunteers, Stevens said.
"Freedom's not free," she said, "and we have to have people who do what they do."
For more information on Patriot Paws, go to www.patriotpaws.org or call (972) 772-3282.
Contact Colleen Flaherty at email@example.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHfeatures.