Greater Tulsa Reporter
PETS HELPING PEOPLE: Christy VanCleave, left, co-founder of Pets Helping People, and Debbie Davis, director of operations and outreach, stand with rescue animals inside the headquarters for the nonprofit organization, which provides non-violent female offenders job training in dog grooming, boarding and other pet care services.
EMILY RAMSEY for GTR Newspapers
Christy VanCleave knows firsthand the challenges that individuals, particularly women, face when reintegrating into society after serving a prison sentence.
After completing her sentence, VanCleave continued to visit local prisons as part of a church group, and “I saw the same people coming back into prison over and over again,” she says.
“These women couldn’t make a decent wage; they had a hard time getting a job because they were felons.”
Currently, the state average of recidivism, or relapse into criminal behavior, for females is over 13 percent.
“These women need to be taught a career. They need to learn how to take care of themselves and their families and gain self-sufficiency,” VanCleave says.
In response to that need, in 2009, VanCleave, who has been a dog groomer for over three decades, co-founded Pets Helping People, a nonprofit organization that provides non-violent female offenders job training in dog grooming and other pet care services.
In 2012, VanCleave sold her grooming business, Muddy Paws, to the nonprofit, thus providing students greater opportunity to gain grooming experience in an operational business setting. Pets Helping People DBA (doing business as) Muddy Paws offers dog grooming services, dog and cat boarding, doggie daycare, and other pet services.
Pets Helping People (PHP) sees a recidivism average of under four percent.
“If there were more programs to help women adapt to life after prison, how to pay bills, how to hold a job, Oklahoma wouldn’t have such high recidivism rates,” says VanCleave.
In 2010, VanCleave moved PHP to its current midtown location, at 2234 E. 56th Pl., where VanCleave and Director of Operations and Outreach Debbie Davis have continued to expand the shop’s physical size and PHP’s offerings.
The nonprofit is currently starting on its third expansion project since 2012, which will expand the shop into an additional space within the shopping center that will serve as the program’s classroom and computer room, with most of the funding coming from proceeds from PHP’s 2016 fall fundraiser.
Through partnerships with Tulsa Tech and CareerTech, students take weekly computer classes, workplace professionalism courses and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) training.
“We have expanded over the past few years because our needs have grown, and we have an excellent community that embraces what we do,” says Davis.
“The majority of these women have never been employed before,” she continues. “There is a huge emotional change that has to take place.”
Therefore, in addition to teaching job skills, PHP goes beyond that, providing education in life skills, including finding healthy relationships, conflict resolution, maintaining a job, and building character qualities such as responsibility, compassion, and problem solving.
“We try to cover all aspects of life,” Davis says.
PHP also works with local grooming shops in order to locate jobs for all of its students upon their graduation from the program.
PHP graduate Stephanie Ballinger will finish her prison sentence in March. She was recently hired as a groomer with PetSmart. “This program is a wonderful opportunity. Before prison, I didn’t have many skills,” she says.
“I have seen everyone get a job placement; that’s a nice assurance,” says Stevie Howell, a dog lover who has been in the PHP program for two months.
Before her conviction, Howell worked in minimum wage jobs, “nothing that I ever enjoyed,” she says. PHP is giving her the opportunity for a new start after her sentence is completed: making a living doing something she enjoys, she continues.
“I’ve learned to step out of my comfort zone, be willing to learn new things, take constructive criticism, and I’ve gained confidence in myself, which doesn’t just apply to the workplace, but in all aspects of life,” Howell says.
Currently, over 200 women have graduated from the program.
VanCleave also uses PHP to benefit rescue dogs. She works with a number of area rescue organizations, including Oklahoma Westie Rescue, Okie Dokie Cocker Spaniel Rescue, Lab Rescue and Animal Rescue Foundation, that provide dogs for students to practice their grooming skills before moving on to grooming customers’ animals with Muddy Paws.
VanCleave, who owns three rescue dogs of her own, then, takes efforts to find good homes for the dogs.
“Each woman has a favorite dog here,” VanCleave says.
Although she admits that it can be hard for the students to see a rescue dog leave the shop when he/she finds a good home, that also provides another learning opportunity.
“It helps to teach students that you can love someone or something, but if you have to let it go, something else good will come along,” she says.
For further information about Pets Helping People and Muddy Paws, call 918-749-5255.