Reclaiming “lost” youth & dogs
f you’ve never been to MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn you might be surprised by its serene, park-like campus at the end of a long curving drive. If not for the stretches of chain-link fence, many of the old buildings nestled in sprawling, tree-lined lawns look almost cozy. MacLaren “residents” often refer to it as the “camp,” which fits. It is here that participants of Project POOCH (Positive Opportunities, Obvious Change with Hounds) reside. Youth incarcerated at MacLaren have an opportunity to participate in POOCH, a nonprofit that pairs inmates with dogs who have “adoption issues.” Four-legged participants also live on campus, in the on-site POOCH kennel. Fifteen years ago there wasn’t a kennel, or even a desire for one, at MacLaren. There was just a new vice principle at William P. Lord High School, which serves the youth population there. That V.P. was Joan Dalton. The biggest challenge for her school was getting students to graduate. By the time most arrive at MacLaren they’ve been away from school. Dalton recalls how kids with few credits had little interest in hitting the books. School meant teachers and homework and math, and with everything else incarcerated youth face, Dalton says, they “didn’t see the point.” Dalton doesn’t shy from a good challenge. At Lord she felt she could improve the graduation rate if she could just find an incentive to get youth into school and keep them there. That’s where Project POOCH came in — beginning with just one youth and one “un-adoptable” dog. Begun humbly in 1993, Dalton’s labor of love grew beyond its original high school program to become a functioning nonprofit by 1999. This, Dalton knew, would enable her to help both Lord students and grads who still wanted to participate in the program. The process involved some “minor”
Promoting good alignment and flexibilty at all ages
16 SPOT MAGAZINE | DECEMBER 2008
personal sacrifice — Dalton not only had to quit her position at Lord, she also sold her home to sustain the fledgling organization. The idea of at-risk youth helping at-risk dogs — and vice versa — has such symmetry that it naturally catches people’s attention. That’s good, because the survival of the program relies on donations. But people really started paying attention with the release of a six-year study by Pepperdine doctoral student Sandra Merriam-Arduni. From 1993 to 1999, Merriam-Arduni studied 100 POOCH participants to determine what effect, if any, the program was having on their behavior, reformation, and recidivism. Her findings showed improvements across the board, and also this stunning statistic: between 1993 and 1994 there were NO incidences of POOCH participants re-offending (and returning to prison). Sociologists have studied crime since the inception of prisons, seeking ways to break the cycle of crime, incarceration, “rinse and repeat.” Programs that produce any reduction in recidivism are considered successful. So it makes sense that since the publication of Merriam-Aduini’s work — and a subsequent study by PSU student Kate Davis — there’s been quite a buzz over Dalton’s work. While statistics are a great way to measure success, sometimes the people get lost behind the numbers. That’s what drove me to accept Dalton’s invitation to spend time with her at MacLaren and meet POOCH participants (both youth and canine) — to get behind the numbers. There was a lot happening the day of my visit. Trainer-in-residence, Scott Raymond of Synergy Dog Training, was consulting with youths one on one. It was a Saturday, so there were two potential future families coming to visit two of the canine POOCH participants. The everyday bustle of maintaining a kennel and training dogs. When Adam Bergin of Oregon Youth Authority, which liaisons with POOCH, pointed out the computer where POOCH youth sign in and out, just like a “real” job, I got the picture: this is a business. According to Dalton, the business feel is intentional. Among myriad skills POOCH participants work on, job skills are an important set. Dalton worries that when youth leave MacLaren they’ll be thrown into a highly-competitive job market. POOCH goes beyond teaching how to train, groom and care for dogs. Dalton and Bergin make sure they add a little spice to computer
The impression, standing amidst hoses spraying, brooms sweeping and the radio playing jazz is a clear picture of the definition of the employment catchphrase, “selfmotivated.”
Any company would be lucky to have them.
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