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Oklahoma CareerTech program gives rescue dogs, female inmates a second chance

Muddy Paws Grooming was founded by a former inmate who works with the state CareerTech Department to give Oklahoma female inmates marketable job skills.
By CONNIE ROMANS, For The Oklahoman Published: May 10, 2014

It’s a busy day at the salon, with dozens of customers getting their hair cut and blown out or having their nails done.

But this isn’t your typical salon. The customers are canines.

Muddy Paws Grooming is a nonprofit program that offers dog grooming, boarding, day care and training. In addition to serving Tulsa-area pet owners, Muddy Paws groomers have spruced up hundreds of rescue dogs since the program started in 2009.

Christy VanCleave believes in giving dogs a second chance.

That goes for their groomers, too. Most of the groomers are inmates who come to Muddy Paws for job training and marketable skills that might be the key to a new life.

Oklahoma has the highest per capita female incarceration rate in the country. Many female inmates have been incarcerated more than once. VanCleave says they have no idea how to break the cycle of crime, addiction and incarceration.

She understands because she was incarcerated five times in California, mostly for drug charges.

But in 2000, she was able to break that cycle. She stayed off drugs and out of jail long enough to get a job as a dog groomer for a pet specialty retailer.

“I had experience as a groomer before I went in,” VanCleave said, “so I had that to fall back on when I came out.”

That wasn’t the case for many of the other women she met in prison. “They couldn’t make a living working at fast food or cleaning hotels,” she said.

VanCleave had a dream to help women like herself so they could support themselves and their families.

She met another former inmate in a drug recovery program in Tulsa, and the two women started a foundation called Pets Helping People, which became the guiding force for the grooming business.

Muddy Paws relies heavily on private funding, but also partners with the state CareerTech Department. The CareerTech Skills Center staffers help identify women in corrections who are good candidates for the program. Those women are moved to Turley Corrections Center, the closest facility to Muddy Paws. VanCleave drives the 20 miles north to Turley every morning to pick up the students, then takes them back to the corrections center at night.

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