Rescued: Project HEEL is Saving Street Dogs and Incarcerated Juveniles

Rescued: Project HEEL is Saving Street Dogs and Incarcerated Juveniles
Photographs by Daniel Kramer

The respectful, guarded stance of the three boys in the lockup jumpsuits lasts maybe 20 seconds when they walk into Unit Six at the Harris County Leadership Academy near Katy. Almost immediately, they beeline to the row of cages that line the far wall. One of them is occupied by a Labrador mix named Bomber. He was found limping around an airstrip on a broken leg. His stance is firm enough now that the delighted wagging of his tail sways him only a little. One of the boys eagerly reaches through the bars of the cage to get an affectionate nuzzle and lick from the dog, only to be told that the dogs haven’t been cleared for touching yet. Disappointed but still cheerful, the boy settles for pressing the flat palm of his hand against the cage to feel Bomber’s breath.

Seconds later, the door opens and Lynda makes her way in. She’s smaller than Bomber, a black and white Pit Bull mix, and she immediately starts straining against her leash to reach the trio. The rules are supposed to be the same for her, but it’s clear that they’re not going to be followed. Hands rub Lynda’s face and back, and any resemblance the boys, with their shaved heads and jumpsuits, may have to convicts melts away. It’s hard to see someone as a criminal when he’s rolling around on the floor next to a smiling dog giving belly rubs and making baby talk.

“At home I’m always picking up stray dogs,” says Matt (not his real name) as we watch his friend play with Lynda. “They come up to me naturally, and I feed them and take care of them. They just know I’m going to do right by them.”

HCLA is home to around 70 incarcerated boys, all of whom have had multiple run-ins with the law and are assigned there by court order. Infractions range from drug dealing to burglary to gang activity. Many of the boys are adult-size and have proven dangerous.

“For some of these boys in here, the last time they saw a dog was when a police dog munched on them,” says Dennis Englade, the superintendent at HCLA.

These boys are applicants for Project HEEL (Helping Empower Everyone’s Lives), which pairs dogs from Corridor Rescue with the boys of HCLA for their mutual benefit. The aim is that the dogs will learn commands and behavior that will make them more attractive prospects for adoption, while the boys will learn both the responsibility of caring for another living being and the worth of a dog’s unconditional love.

The dogs come mostly from an area known as the Corridor of Cruelty, the neighborhood surrounding U.S. 59 and Little York Road. It’s known for the horrific acts of animal cruelty and neglect that take place on its streets.

“These dogs come from an area where the mind-set of how to treat animals is pretty tough,” says Catherine Hoffman of Corridor Rescue. “Letting them run loose in the streets is pretty common. Dumping dead dogs is, too, including dead puppies. Abandoning your dog is common. Fighting them is common. It’s a tough place, so they do come with histories and scars.”

“A lot of them are starved for affection, so it doesn’t take them long to realize that ‘these people are going to be pretty nice to me.’ You build up a trust pretty quickly,” says Richard Hoffman, Catherine’s husband, fellow volunteer and brother of Corridor founder Deborah Hoffman. He’s discussing the dogs, but the same can be said for many of the boys.

HCLA is a closed juvenile correction facility. Though something like the theft of an automobile is the same crime whether a 15-year-old or a 50-year-old commits it, there is a belief in the justice system that for the teenager, there can still be rehabilitation. The boys are adjudicated delinquents, not convicts, but nonetheless, HCLA is usually the last stop before they either go straight or enter the adult justice system.

According to Englade, the majority of the boys who find their way to HCLA come from urban areas such as Sunnyside and Third Ward. Most of them rarely leave the immediate neighborhood around their home. They go to school — if they go to school — and they visit local convenience stores or the homes of their friends and family, but there’s nowhere else to go and no way to get there if they could.

“We’re 35 miles from downtown, but as far as these kids’ families are concerned, we might as well be Afghanistan,” says Englade. “Their means are very limited. Most of them have never even been to a Costco or anything like that. We try to make it feel safe here so that they don’t have to worry about getting shot through the window or where their next meal is coming from. In many ways, they’ve all forgotten how to just be teenagers. That’s a lot of the problem. These are teenage boys like any other; it’s just that their extremes are wider.”

A tough early start is one of the things that parallel so well with the dogs in HEEL. Like the boys, they often have had to fight for whatever they can scrounge from the streets, and their means are just as limited if not more so. The homeless-pet population in Houston is already a huge problem. A 2005 report of the Mayor’s Animal Protection Task Force estimated that at least 80,000 dogs are euthanized from the streets each year. In the Corridor of Cruelty, things get uglier than almost anywhere else.

It’s not uncommon for Corridor Rescue to find dogs sealed in green Hefty bags and bearing scars from dog-fighting matches. Earlier this year, Helle Kastrup made the local news when she and other members were doing their regular feeding run in the area. They witnessed a man intentionally accelerating his car so he could strike a dog in the street. The dog, later named Suki, survived with grave injuries, and it was discovered that she was also pregnant at the time. Her puppies were delivered by C?section-, though not all survived. Thousands of dollars worth of surgeries were needed to save her.

It’s a hard life, but the HEEL program has definitely had its successes in turning street mutts into regular family pets. One special case was Peanut, a shepherd/your-guess-is-as-good-as-ours mix who was selected for the course. Peanut had spent his entire life as a ward of various kennels and shelters. By the time Corridor got to him, he was barely a dog. He knew how to eat, how to drink, how to sleep in a cage and how to stand in a cage. That was all he had ever been allowed to do.

“The boys did finally pull him out of his shell,” Catherine Hoffman says, laughing at the unintentional pun. “He learned to be with his boys and take commands, but he was very different from the other dogs. The training for Peanut was really life—changing.”

The idea of matching criminal offenders with pets in need isn’t new, though it’s newly popular thanks to shows such as Pit Bulls & Parolees, now in its sixth season. MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Oregon, has been partnered with Project POOCH since 1993 to provide rescue dogs to incarcerated youth, but the number of facilities like HCLA adopting the practice has risen mostly in the past five years. The Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood, Texas, has had good success teaming incarcerated teenage girls with dogs, but HEEL is the only such program in Texas geared specifically for boys, and it may itself soon be the subject of a film by documentarian Ruth Villatoro, who directed The Cantinera.

“It gives them something that lets them just be boys again,” says Englade. “They’re just like other boys in that they only care about three things: girls, sports and food. There aren’t any girls out here, so they’re already down to two. We’ve got a bunch of kids that have never had a childhood. One of the things we do in HEEL that is so rewarding is that we make the kids read to their dog. It’s so powerful, just watching how heartfelt they are in reading some little rinky-dink book to the dog. They’ve never had that sort of thing before.”

Catherine and Richard Hoffman rescue the victims of animal abuse along the Corridor of Cruelty.
Catherine and Richard Hoffman rescue the victims of animal abuse along the Corridor of Cruelty.

The HEEL program is very selective about who participates, both for the boys and for the dogs.

HCLA runs on a point and level -system not unlike that of role-playing video games. Boys in the facility earn points by participating in programs and maintaining good behavior. Earn enough points, and you move up to the next level, where you are afforded more freedom and privilege. Eventually the goal is to demonstrate enough initiative for self-control and self-betterment that you earn your way back out into the world. Being in HEEL can contribute to that.

But the program’s managers don’t take just anyone looking for a light assignment playing with dogs so he can gain his freedom faster. There’s a comprehensive screening process. Any history of animal cruelty or zoosadism is an automatic disqualification, but that’s only the first hurdle.

“We pass out applications to every boy who wants one, and they have to fill it out,” says Englade. “That’s a helpful lesson just right there. A lot of these boys are young, so they’ve never worked, and it’s good practice for filling out a job application that they might have already gotten if they’d been out there instead of in here.”

Boys are also required to get a reference, usually from one of the HCLA staff members they come in contact with.

“They learn that it matters how you treat other people and how you get along,” says transition officer Kieno Berry. “They’re going to need someone to vouch for them, both here and out there, who will say, ‘Yeah, Johnny can do that. You can trust him.’”

Applications are handed out to any of the residents who wish to apply, and most do. Typically the program will narrow the number of applicants down to eight to 12 boys per session; there are generally three sessions a year. In the early days of HEEL, one of the biggest problems was that some boys finished out their time at HCLA before the eight-week course was fulfilled. Now the facility is careful to look for candidates who have the time required to take part, as well as for a good mix of better-behaved kids and troublemakers.

“The hope is to get them as a team exerting positive peer pressure on each other,” Berry says. “Sometimes there are problems. It’s a mixed-unit group, so a kid that may get along okay in his own unit may not get along with a kid in another. Plus, you know, some kids just aren’t ready to give up their time between lunch and class taking care of a dog when they are used to playing basketball. Hopefully, that results in them coming up to me and saying, ‘Mr. Berry, I thought I could do this, but I just can’t,’ but other times the frustration causes fights.”

Problems that arise from conflicts are discussed at the end of the day’s session in what are called couch sessions. It’s a team effort on the part of all the boys, learning to iron out frictions before they turn into something worse. It’s rare for a boy to be deemed completely unable to continue with the program. Only one or two have been sent out.

“Honestly, I think some of their biggest -frustrations come from having to go back to their unit,” says Berry. “It’s just more safe and fun here.”

Selecting the dogs can be just as hard. Usually the program chooses four dogs to begin, but normally at least one doesn’t make it.

“Some dogs just won’t fit in here,” says Englade. “It’s loud and cavernous. Doors are always slamming somewhere. Some dogs just don’t like men. We had one dog that just developed this intense dislike of one of our custodians. He would snarl and growl whenever the guy would get near him. We had to send him back. The fastest thing that would shut down this project is if a dog bit anyone.”

Appropriately enough, Englade has a dog counterpart to keep the Corridor dogs in line. He is a Mastiff named Zeus, and he’s literally the Big Boss Man of HCLA as far as the dogs go. He’s not a Corridor dog but a live-in mascot and pet. He was found wandering around the remote facility in 2012, and was adopted immediately thanks to his friendly nature. Englade believes that Zeus’s original owner must have seen the facility on an ABC News story that aired shortly before Zeus was found and had simply dumped him near there.

“He’s a people dog,” says Englade. “He just wants to be around people all the time.”

When a new session starts, Zeus takes a field trip to whatever kennel the potential HEEL dogs are currently housed in (HEEL does not maintain its own facility, instead using foster homes and borrowing space from shelters). There, Zeus will spend roughly a week or so -socializing with the other dogs and establishing himself as the alpha of the pack. Dogs that don’t make the behavioral cut are sent back to their fosters.

The ones that do make it are transferred to HCLA Unit Six with its freestanding crates, where they will spend a week getting to know the new place under the guidance of their new boss. Zeus’s claim to the territory of HCLA keeps the other dogs on their best behavior. He’s always around, being walked into the units or outside into the large yard for play, stopping and letting boys drop their tough-guy acts to pet and love on him. Mastiffs were introduced to America by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s for use as living weapons against the Native Americans. Now their gentler descendent works as an example to his fellows of what a well-loved American dog should be.

One of the highlights of the HEEL program is how comprehensive and centered on education it is. The boys start out walking the dogs, feeding them and attending to their other basic needs. The dogs live in a series of crates in Unit Six, where the boys and the Corridor volunteers meet.

Training includes basic obedience work: sit, stay, potty only outside, stay off the couch, etc. Boys work in teams, usually two or three to a dog, to account for any scheduling conflicts so that no dog is left uncared for. However, it’s made very clear that the dogs are the group’s responsibility. Everyone is accountable and needs to pitch in. If a dog’s assigned boys aren’t there that day, someone else needs to stand up and take care of it.

The boys have even been taught how to speak basic American Sign Language as part of the program, a necessity brought about by a deaf white Pit Bull named Oreo. According to the Canine Health Foundation, the gene that causes white fur has been linked to congenital deafness, and is often found in blue-eyed Pits.

In addition, two vets who work with Corridor visit the program weekly. They teach the boys dog anatomy and physiology as well as basic health care and medicine. Bringing in a big jar full of heartworms is apparently always a big hit. What self-respecting teenage boy doesn’t want to see something that gross?

There’s the aforementioned reading to the dogs, but the boys have their own reading to do. Part of the curriculum is Michael Vick’s 2012 autobiography, Finally Free. The star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons was arrested on animal cruelty charges in 2007 that included running a dog-fighting ring, hanging dogs and drowning them. After serving two years in confinement, he returned to the NFL and has since been endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States both for his work as an advocate for the humane treatment of animals and for striving to reach at-risk youths who might follow in his path.

Stephanie Vallejos and her husband, Oscar Lopez, spend as much time telling boys their options in life as they do helping them train their dogs.
Stephanie Vallejos and her husband, Oscar Lopez, spend as much time telling boys their options in life as they do helping them train their dogs.

Even with grant support to HCLA that helps Corridor Rescue administer HEEL, financial needs outstrip available funds. As with many other area programs, volunteers donating their time and energies are a key factor in the success of the project.

“These are people we might never have met in The Free; that’s what we talk about all the time, The Free,” says Catherine Hoffman. “And yet they realize that there are these people that they don’t know who are willing to give up their Saturdays and bring them food and treats and spend time with them. I think that they look forward to seeing us and we look forward to seeing them, and it gives them a different perspective on society as a whole.”
Some of the volunteers have had experiences similar to the boys’ — a plus when they’re making the point that change is possible.

One of those is Oscar Lopez. He and his wife, Stephanie Vallejos, are dog lovers who learned about Corridor Rescue from a University of Houston professor. They started out doing trash pickups and feed runs on the route, and jumped at the chance to be a part of HEEL when Hoffman gave them a list of other projects that needed volunteers.

Lopez himself has gone through a facility like HCLA thanks to a past that included criminal activity involving gangs and drugs.

“I grew up [around] 59 and Aldine Bender, which is not a good area,” he says. “They don’t call it Jail Row for no reason. I tell them that I did the same types of things that they did to end up there and there are only so many kinds of trouble you can get into to wind up in a place like that. Everyone says they don’t want to be there. When I ask them to raise their hands if they chose to be there, they say no. But I tell them at the end of the day, they did and they can choose not to be there, too.”

Both Lopez and Vallejos are young college students in their twenties and much closer in age to the boys of HCLA than many other volunteers.

“They’re abandoned in a way,” says Vallejos. “We ask them, ‘Who comes to visit you?’ Some of the kids don’t even see their parents because the jail is all the way in Katy. You ask how many of their friends come to see them. Nobody. They always think that their friends are going to be there for them and that they’ll all stick together, but when they end up in there, it’s a different reality.”

Much of what the couple does is of course directly connected with working with the boys and their dogs. They help with training and care and generally do whatever is necessary to keep HEEL functioning smoothly that day. However, part of their job involves much more than the technical aspects.

Anyone who works with teenagers will tell you that calling them in to see you and trying to get anything out of them, especially something personal, is harder than trying to crack a safe. It’s easier, the volunteers find, to make a connection with the boys if there’s an activity involved. Playing and working with the dogs creates an environment that allows for easy mutual communication, and Lopez uses that time to his advantage.

“We play little games,” says Lopez. “I play Simon Says with them, and at the end I say, ‘Why don’t you jump over that couch?’ They look at me like I’m crazy. I ask them why they won’t do it and they say, ‘’Cause it’s dumb. I could have got hurt.’ I tell them that’s kind of like how it is outside. You don’t have to do something just because someone told you to. What’s going to happen when someone you love or trust tells you to hold something for them, say, a gun. Now it has a couple of hits on it and you get caught with it. Just because they said so. I try to teach them to not be a follower.”

From Lopez’s point of view, the problem a lot of the boys have is that they simply don’t know any other life or that there’s a way out. Most of them don’t even know that something like financial aid for college is available, or that you can go to community college and get started without having good grades.

“There are a lot of things missing in certain neighborhoods,” says Lopez. “You don’t have parks close by or trails to walk. Me? I didn’t have a cousin or a friend or an uncle that was a lawyer or an accountant and could say, ‘Hey, do this. Go to school. Make something of yourself.’ All I had was the people on the corner of the block selling drugs. They had nice clothes, and I thought that was the best you could get. That’s how I’m supposed to get what I need, and that’s what these kids see. It has to do with resources, and a lot of that aggression comes from not feeling like they have what they need, what they want. It’s not as easily attainable as it is from some other areas.”

Time spent teaching the boys how to rehabilitate dogs is also time spent answering questions about how to do better on the outside. How do I apply for a job? How do I become a mechanic? What do you need to go to school? Even the fact that they could transfer the knowledge from their work in HEEL to jobs as veterinary technicians or as staff members at PetSmart.

“I tell them that whatever they did to get in here, someone will pay you to do out there legally,” says Lopez. “You like to fight? Join a boxing gym. Like dealing drugs? Become a pharmacy tech. And if you can’t find work? Volunteer somewhere. Eventually someone will find you something to do and they’ll pay you for it.”

An even more tangible example of hardship overcome is Lopez and Vallejos’s fellow volunteer and classmate Joseph Fleeks. Nine years ago, he was a kid standing on the corner of South Main and Hillcroft when he became the victim of a retaliation gang shooting. Fleeks took the bullet in his face, and though he survived, his sight did not. He not only lost his ability to see; he lost the football scholarship he had earned.

Being blind and dependent on other people was depressing to Fleeks, who had always prided himself on his independence, to say nothing of losing a possible pro football career. After an initial bleak period, he decided that there was still plenty of life to live and things to contribute.

“There’s a time when you realize you have something to give,” says Fleeks. “When I was shot, I was almost done with school. HISD didn’t know what to do with me, really, because I was on my way out. It was a hard fight for them to know what to do with me, and it was a harder fight for me to get what I needed. I had to ask for help, but I realized that didn’t mean that I couldn’t contribute, that I couldn’t give someone else something I had that they needed.”

It’s a powerful visual reminder to a lot of the kids that Fleeks comes in contact with. If he can get past both a violent start and a debilitating injury to move on and go to school, that throws down a gauntlet to the unimpaired whom he visits.

“Most of them tend to strive for a bit more after that,” says Fleeks. “Ain’t nobody really talking to them and telling them, ‘Hey, you don’t have to go follow this man just because he’s got a lot of dough in his pocket.’ Sit back, go to school, get your grades and you can make it and not be on the hamster wheel staying in the same place.”

Fleeks is keenly aware of the connection between the boys and the dogs they care for. The dogs are lost and have to be brought back into the social world, and the same is true for the boys. It’s a matter of rebuilding trust.

“You just have to just talk to them,” he says. “You just keep building trust, and then hopefully, eventually, they open their eyes.”

Three young residents meet Lynda and Bomber, this session’s HEEL dogs, for the first time.
Three young residents meet Lynda and Bomber, this session’s HEEL dogs, for the first time.

At the end of a HEEL program, there’s a graduation. Thus far, every single dog that has been a part of it has found a home. Prospective owners are, after all, getting a dog with basic obedience training for free, and that makes finding a place for the dog to belong that much easier.

At the last program, all three dogs that had been housed at HCLA had been adopted while still being cared for by the boys. Not only did the boys’ own families attend the ceremony, but the dogs’ forever families did as well. The boys make a big show of demonstrating all they have taught the dogs before handing them off to their forever families.

“You’d think it would be somber and sad, but it’s not,” says Englade. “These boys all know that they did something. They accomplished something. You can take away a lot, but you can’t take away that.”

In a corner of the Hoffmans’ home, there’s a large yellow poster board bearing three handwritten letters. These are notes from boys in an earlier program who wrote to thank the Hoffmans for letting them be a part of it.

“One says, ‘Thank you for letting us be boys,’” says Hoffman. “You could offer me a lot of money or something like this, and I’d take this every time. There’s nothing like it.”

Sometimes there’s an even happier ending. At least one boy at HCLA persuaded his mother to adopt the dog in his care. It was waiting for him when he got home.

“The dogs get so much out of being there,” says Vallejos. “A lot of them come from horrible pasts. The kids learn to love and be responsible for somebody else. You ask these kids, ‘Who’s your role model?’ and they’ll be like, ‘Nobody.’ They learn that even with a dog, they can be an influence, and the dogs influence them. You can see them; they don’t want to show it, but they are lovey-lovey with the dogs.”

HEEL has enjoyed plenty of support from the Harris County juvenile justice system, and there’s talk of expanding to a girls’ facility in the future. Englade and his team are interested in trying to broaden the possibilities of community outreach, perhaps transitioning graduating boys into vet-tech internships or other avenues designed to keep them on a lawful path with more options.

“When I get out of here, I want to work for a vet,” says Matt, one of the applicants playing with Bomber and Lynda while Zeus watches. “I’m going to make that happen. Dogs, man, you got to love them.”

“These kids can be rehabilitated,” says Englade. “We just need the resources, but we also need the pet-loving public to step out of their comfort zone. These are not criminals. These are just teenagers who made a series of bad decisions. This program does so well because the kids see themselves in the dogs and the dogs see themselves in the kids.

“There is so much compassion for rescuing animals. You have to wonder sometimes if there is that same passion in rescuing kids in our community.”


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