TULSA — 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.
Roy Peters, former CareerTech state director, and his pooch are regulars at Muddy Paws.
“This is a great CareerTech program,” Peters said. “It offers live work, life skills, computer training and Celebrate Recovery, a support group for drug users.”
CareerTech donated computer hardware and digital curriculum and provides some of Muddy Paws’ operating money. It also offers placement help for graduates.
In addition to completing on-site coursework, students go to Tulsa Technology Center’s Lemley campus, where they can take classes in entrepreneurship and computer fundamentals.
There’s good money to be made in the dog grooming business, VanCleave said, noting one student graduated while she was still incarcerated and living in a halfway house. She was making $800 a week.
Program graduates leave with a pet stylist groomer certification and $1,000 worth of tools, financed by Pets Helping People.
When Lea Ann Eastteam graduated from the program, VanCleave hired her to stay on as a groomer.
“Working here isn’t a job,” Eastteam said. “It’s like family. We get spiritual support and friendship. It’s life-changing.”
Eastteam said the training and subsequent job have helped her stay off drugs and repair relationships with her family. She is now caring for her grandchildren — with a lot of support from VanCleave and the Muddy Paws staff.
Not all dogs are excited about the prospect of being groomed, but VanCleave said all her groomers are able to work with ill-tempered, difficult dogs.
“Other dog grooming shops send dogs here that they can’t deal with,” she said.
For the dogs and the women, she said, it just takes someone who is willing to give them a chance.
Connie Romans is communications and marketing coordinator with the state CareerTech Department. She can be reached at Connie.Romans@careertech.ok.gov.