The Big House to Your House : A Project Diary
This would be the story of my awkward entrance into social media. Technically, it happened...without my consent? Not sure how to word that properly. The director of DoggoneExpress decided to start an online funding page. He's not active on facebook. He's not active on twitter, Instagram, Google+ or LinkedIn. If there's a blind mole rat of the internet, it's my darlin' Bill. So he must've talked to some toolbox who said, "Oh, you need to raise funds? Use the internet!" So, he started a gofundme page, got one donation for $100 immediately from one of our partner veterinarians, and thought it would be a landslide of cash to fund our programs. Shocking news. It was not. I was informed of the initiative, along with four other people, through an email.
I monitored the account for a few days, and when his updates became pleading, I decided to take it over. What does that mean? Consistent posting on Twitter (ouch). Consistent posting on LinkedIn (ugh). Starting a Pinterest page (Stop! It burns!!!). Consistent posting updates on the gofundme page (no biggie, no one is going there). In essence, putting it out there to back-peddle market an internet, non-profit campaign. This is NOT my comfort zone or expertise, and if there was ever anything in marketing that was going to challenge me, this was my Everest.
So I started simply, posting pictures of our inmates training our dogs, creating an "advert" post. It was lame. This was Wednesday. When Friday came, I thought, "Let's have some fun with this." But it made me really nervous. So ridiculous, right? Internet thoughts are so fleeting, and there's so much inappropriate shit out there, which is exactly why this whole experience makes me incredibly uncomfortable.
But, now that I'm having so much fun creating concepts, content and designs, it's something I look forward to each day. I'm coming around on all of the platforms...except Facebook. I'm trying to think of a situation dire enough to make me join that cesspool, and I can't come up with one. In the meantime, I'll keep hammering away, and if I succeed at this? I might treat myself to a bottle of Pappy. Cheers.
A new prison program just started in Tammany Parish in the beginning of October. I'm super excited to visit the facility, particularly because Bill has said the Tammany Parish prison wants their Big House to Your House program to be the best of all the LA prison systems. It sounds like that's Tammany Parrish prison's m.o. in general, which is a little humorous. If you watch the video (hint, hint) you can tell the facilities are pretty nice, even if the inmate's pants look like they're straight out of The Three Stooges. Seriously, I have to talk to them about those pants. Anyway, they only have 3 C.A.T.S. (Canine Assessment Training Staff) in the program now, but everyone thinks it will grow very quickly, and it will. They're looking to add a dog grooming station so the inmates can get certified as professional dog groomers. This is also the first program to have inmates train a veteran on how to be a C.A.T., so essentially, veterans will start training their own personal companions as well as other dogs for more veterans. If you know anything about the suicide rate of our veterans, you know how important dogs can be to their psychological well-being. This program's reach continues to grow and spin off into more amazing directions. Every time I hear something new, I shake my head when I think about reading my Twitter feed...in Denver...in the middle of the night...a year ago this month...and seeing the post from channel 4 NOLA (I think it was channel 4) with a report on Bill and his program. The story of how we came to be is so surreal, and I think it's going to eventually take me into the next phase of my career in animal and public service.
But, that's not why I'm writing now. I'm writing to share information on the organizations I partner with and support, either with financial resources, design resources or simply by volunteering. And maybe if someone is reading this, they will look into them too and decide to help out where they can. As much as I hate social media, blogging...vlogging....tweeting, twating...facebooking (never!), I know that to keep this to myself in a vacuum does a disservice to the animals I help and the other people who help them. Besides, I know a friend in Denver who read this once, as well as my dog walker here in NOLA, so you never know. Warren Buffet, are you out there? On with the links:
That video I mention above? Here's where you can find it. There are 2 tv reports on the T.Parish program. One link features one of my photos (cool!) and the other features the veteran I mentioned. I won't tell you which one is which. If you have 6 minutes, and you do, you can watch them both. Feel free to peruse the rest of the site, as I designed it entirely. That was part of my original deal when I first talked to Bill: Let me photograph the prisoners and the dogs and I'll redesign your website. We're all really happy with the results.
When I first decided to move to New Orleans, which was many years before I actually moved here, I started following a lot of NOLA orgs on Twitter to tap into the city. One of those orgs was ARNO (Animal Rescue New Orleans). They are a no-kill shelter run by a few awesome gals and tons of volunteers. I'm now one of them. When I first started volunteering there, my friends asked if I was doing design work for them. Ha! I was cleaning cages and runs with pee and shit and slowly learning how the dogs managed in their limited environment. Then, I did get an idea for where I could help with design. Their kennel tags were hand-written, and just had basic information about the dog. Name, sex, age, breed. I thought, how boring, and if I was visiting I might think of going somewhere else for a dog. So I suggested making kennel tags for the dogs. See some examples here.
I try to engage visitors by incorporating pop culture into the dog's personality, and so far, I think it's increased the adoption rate. The dog who had been there the longest time before I arrived got adopted after I made her a tag. So...yeah.
Late night iPhone reading strikes again, thanks to Dogster. This is the first rescue I ever got involved with, and it's the closest to my heart. I've never met the people there. I've never seen the facilities. Shit, I've never been to South Carolina. But, this woman and her mission to help severely abused dogs....and I mean severely...is unparalleled. The first dog I donated to was an adorable dalmatian mix puppy who, they assessed, had been drug behind a car for at least a few miles. He was found in a dumpster by garbage men, barely alive. Since then, I read about all of the cases she helps with her own money. This woman, Jennifer, will go to the most extraordinary measures to save dogs in need. I sometimes think about how often I've used the word "extraordinary" in my life, and it's not many, if at all. She is truly a saint walking among us, and this is from an atheist. I give what I can when I can, and I've dedicated a portion of any PayPal invoice payments to her cause, but it will never be enough. Every day there's more.
Wow, this turned out to be quite a screed! Could scotch and bourbon be to blame? Probably. But, if it helps what I think is an important message, then I say, Drink On.
7/28/2014 - Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women
I'm finally in New Orleans for good—settled to the point where I'm able to volunteer at the local animal shelter and get back to my prison photos. I realize I never posted after my January trip when I was supposed to shoot the dog grads I met on my first trip. Turns out that they close roads in New Orleans if it gets too cold. Actually, much of the city shut down, which I found funny having lived through Philly winters and residing in Denver for 8 years. So, the photo shoot I was so excited for was cancelled because, in the words of the Warden to Bill, "Prison is closed". Bill joked that if there was ever a day to commit a crime, that was it. I thought that was hilarious. The Warden did not. All was not lost though, because I got to look at more real estate.
Fast forward to now...I'm done setting up our house, work is back to normal, and I'm getting back into the swing of helping animals where I can. I had another photo shoot, at the ladies' prison this time. The classroom environment there wasn't as conducive to intimate photos like the guy's classroom was, and it was boiling hot outside, so there wasn't much opportunity for natural light shooting. We were in the Entomology classroom, which I thought was really interesting. Overall the women's prison seemed to have more educational facilities with atriums and community gardens, where the guys' were more mechanical, technical and labor-focused.
I was able to see the dog's training in action this time, which was really cool. Some of the dogs were quicker learners and more obedient than others. There was one dog who was supposed to continue training to be a service dog, but his C.A.T. said he probably isn't disciplined enough for that route. This gal had been training dogs for over a year and I could tell just by observing that she really knew her stuff. On the ride back I asked Bill about her, and he said she's going to be released in the coming months and he would hire her immediately. I can definitely see her being a huge asset to the program, and I think the fact that she has the same experience as the other offenders will be to all of our advantage.
Another difference is that the women train the dogs in pairs vs. solo like the men. Some of the ladies commented that they didn't necessarily like the person they were paired with, but they had to work out how to get along for the good of the dog and its training. I didn't think about it at the time, but I will have to ask Bill about the turnover between men and women. He told me that most of the guys that I shot that first time weren't in the program due to infractions, including my favorite guy posted on this blog. I'm wondering if the women stay in the program longer because they have more support from each other to do right by the dog. Some words they used to describe what the program contributed to them: patience, compromise, communication, discipline, responsibility, purpose, unconditional love.
Bill showed them a slide show depicting some of the dogs they had training with their new owners. One was an autistic child and the other was a veteran. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
I'm not sure when my next shoot will be, but an artistic expression of the experience is starting to come together in my mind. In the meantime, I'm working on getting marketing materials set up as well as a website for DGE so we can start hustling some donations. We have more prisons to occupy and we need to get the wounded warriors' and kid's programs moving forward. I'm hoping my efforts will position Bill and the organization to get more volunteers to help with all of these efforts.
One interesting fact I learned while developing content for our marketing: service dogs for the blind cannot be trained in a prison. I assumed the opposite, but when you consider the fact that service dogs for blind need to lead their owner throughout their environment and community, a prison isn't an ideal place for teaching a dog how to get to the library, post office or grocery store. I suggested that we use the veterans or kids for that training. so hopefully that will be another community we can serve in the future.
1/24/2014 - Graduation Day
I am beside myself with excitement for the next trip to New Orleans. I just talked to Bill and we're going back to the men's prison on Wednesday, 1/29, which is an "exchange day". An exchange day means driving a new group of dogs up to the prison and taking the trained ones back. The reason this is exciting is because the group of trained dogs are the ones I met on my first trip, so I'm going to see them "graduate" and see them part with their trainers. Bill said the deaf dog, Patrick, is like a completely different animal. I remember he was one of the more wild dogs, very excitable and hard to control, but I guess he and his trainer did a great job together. I can't wait to see all the guys again and see how much progress the men and the dogs have made. It will be interesting to watch the process, but I'm sure it will be very emotional as well. I have a feeling I'll need some tissues with me. More to come!
11/13/2013 - Road Trip to Rayburn Correctional Center
We got an early start at 9:30 a.m., picking up another student photographer, Rachel, who was doing a project of her own about the guys. Spending 2 hours in the car, I got to learn a lot about Bill and Rachel. They get along like a big brother and little sister, always busting each other's chops. Bill is a minister and a religious guy, but he can get his jabs in and he isn't overbearing about his beliefs. It was a great start to the day, and the friendly, casual conversation made me immediately comfortable with people I had just met.
After arriving at the prison we loaded our gear and entered the building to go through security. We gave our names to the guard who informed me that I wasn't on the list of approved visitors. I mentioned that I had been communicating with the Warden and Deputy Warden, but neither of them were there, so they had to do a background check on the spot. It was a little inconvenient, and I was more upset that I was holding everyone up. Bill got a little testy with the guard when she admonished him for not informing them "ahead of time", even though we all had and the breakdown in communications was theirs. After I was cleared, we had our pat downs, bags scanned and we were off to meet the guys.
When we got to the training building, "the doghouse", the guys chided Bill for being late. Of course it wasn't his fault, but it was neat to see how they all interact and the sense of camaraderie between them. They are there to do a job, but they're also friendly with one another and they're very caring toward their dogs. The trainers are called C.A.T.S. which stands for Canine Assessment Training Specialist, and they wear fluorescent vests that state the title and the website so they are easily visible among the other men who are not in the program. After Bill explained why I was there, we met the guys and their dogs. This group of dogs had been in the program for 1 week, and at that point they had learned to sit, stay, give paw, etc. I found out the dogs stay with the men 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The guys are responsible for tracking how much they eat, when they go to the bathroom, their progress with commands, the time it takes them to master commands, and any other observations they might have. They write reports on their assessments of the animal that are pretty detailed. Bill gave me some copies to read, which I think will shed some light on how I might approach this from an artistic standpoint.
After class everyone goes in the yard to run around and play. The area is separate from genii pop, but everyone can see across the fencing. While the men in the program are very respectful and sweet, the guys in genii pop can be a little more rough with their language and aggressiveness. I spoke to a couple of the C.A.T.S. in the yard, and Quan was probably the most vocal on how the program has affected him. He said that he values the program because when everyone else in his life has abandoned him, family, friends, etc., the dog never judges him and cares for him unconditionally. He gets satisfaction from feeling like he's contributing something positive to the outside world. When I asked him about the sleeping situation, where the dogs are crated under their cots, he said, "I don't don't like putting him to bed, because I know what it's like to be in a cage." That statement really affected me.
I don't know any of the crimes the men have committed as individuals. I do know they run the gamut from drugs to rape to serial killing. The only type of criminal not accepted into the program is one who has animal or child abuse on their record. The prison is also very strict about the rules to participate, which means that if anyone gets written up even once, they are out of the program. As a result, the program has experienced a 50% turnover in C.A.T.S. since it started a year ago.
When I was there, I didn't think or ask about the reasons the guys were in prison. The only thing I cared about was capturing the relationship between the men and the dogs, and the positive impact it has on both. I think I accomplished that for my first time out, but I plan on analyzing things a little more and honing my idea for eventually making this a gallery installment. The next plan is to revisit the prison right after the new year, as well as take a trip to the ladies' prison for their program. In the meantime, I'm developing a Marketing Plan for DoggoneExpress and its programs, to include logos, website, grant applications, presentations and more photos for marketing. 2014 is going to be a busy year, but I can't wait to get started on it. Moving to New Orleans will really help to keep my efforts moving along, so I'm excited for things to come.