After the third time in prison on drug offenses, LeaAnn Eastteam found that going to the dogs was part of her salvation.
Eastteam is finishing her four-year sentence at the Turley Residential Center, which is a correctional halfway house, and has been working in a dog grooming training program for more than a year.
The nonprofit Pets Helping People operates the Muddy Paws pet grooming facility, 2234 E. 56th Place, Tulsa, which is affiliated with the Southern Hills Baptist Church.
“I love coming here,” Eastteam said. “I never thought of this as something I could do. It’s not easy, and you’ve got to want to do it. It’s not an ordinary career choice, but I love the dogs.”
The nonprofit was established last year, and Muddy Paws has been operating at that location since February, training women from various correctional, transitional living and recovery programs.
Most of the women have nonviolent felony convictions. They must be in a recovery program or have a referral to enter the program.
The nonprofit is funded entirely by Muddy Paws, which caters to the public and also works with animal shelters and rescues to rehabilitated abandoned pets. It provides grooming, boarding and training services.
“A lot of these dogs come from shelters or puppy mills or were just dumped,” Eastteam said. “It’s a great feeling to come in and give them love and comfort and a bath they may never have had. It’s peaceful, and I come away knowing I’ve done a good job. A lot of these little guys have never had love.”
The program takes four months to complete.
It usually takes many months longer for the training because the women can work only a day or two a week, depending on their housing or work-release schedule.
Oklahoma is No. 1 nationally in the female incarceration rate, with a rate of 132 per 100,000 women.
Adrieanna Ralph started the program when she was a resident at Turley. She was serving her second prison sentence on drug-related charges.
“Everyone I knew was back and I wondered, why are we all back here?” Ralph said.
Ralph examined her own choices and listened to the stories of her fellow inmates.
Financial problems were among the top pressures mentioned by women who had become re-offenders. Many said the low-paying paying fast-food jobs were not enough to raise their families.
“We didn’t have a real money-making career,” Ralph said. “A lot of us went from having a way to support ourselves and families to nothing. I relapsed, and that’s how I ended up going back. I kept seeing that there was no career to fall back on. You can’t feed a family on minimum wage.”
Ralph had been a dog groomer before entering prison and decided to train others with that skill. She worked with the Turley Residential Center warden to develop a curriculum.
Because pets were not allowed at the facility, the women practiced grooming on stuffed animals.
The curriculum involves the study of different animal breeds, types of grooming, animal handling skills and reading a pet’s body language. It is also a job that doesn’t require a state license.
“It’s better to give a criminal a career,” Ralph said. “It’s something no one can take from them. Only they can lose it.”
Groomers may start out earning about $15,000. But some large pet companies and boutique shops will pay up to $60,000 for top groomers, said Christy VanCleave, co-founder of Muddy Paws with Ralph.
Muddy Paws has placed 13 of its graduates with area grooming shops. Currently, it has five employees and four in training, said VanCleave.
VanCleave had served three years in a California facility on drug offenses more than a decade ago. She was working for a national pet supply store recruiting groomers when she met Ralph.
“We have shops call us now asking if we have people finishing,” VanCleave said. “We can’t meet the demand right now.”
Each morning before work begins, the women gather for a devotional. They say having ex-offenders as the co-founders and leaders gives them hope because they can relate to their plight coming out of prison.
“It’s an inspiration to be in an environment with positive people, positive things going on and positive people in recovery who understand what you are going through,” Eastteam said. “It’s an awesome opportunity.”