Prison closing puts dog ministry in jeopardy

October 7, 2012 (CHICAGO)

Now, the K-9 program's future is unknown because inmates at Dwight Correctional Center train the dogs and that prison is slated to close.

Their cute faces, mellow demeanor, and loving attitude make a perfect combination to comfort others and that connection leads to something much deeper.

"It's not about the dogs," said Tim Hetzner, President, Lutheran Church Charities. "The dogs are bridges to touch people who are suffering, who are hurting."

Lutheran Church Charities' comfort dogs, 50, so far, are dispatched to disasters like Joplin, Missouri, where a tornado last year killed at least 161 people and wounded 900 others. It devastated that community. The dogs, as seen in the program's snapshots, were sent to help.

"Any place where people gather, a dog can be, and a dog makes a difference," said the charity's director of mission and ministry advancement, Tim Kurth.

The dogs make a difference, helping, comforting, loving, listening, to young, and old alike, to groups of children, or just one person.

"I've already seen a number of cases with Samuel," said Lockport Towship Fire Protection District Chaplain Mark Hein. "He can lower stress level down a lot faster than I can."

But now, the K-9 program is in jeopardy. Prison inmates at Dwight Correctional Center train dogs from two programs. The prison was slated to close August 31, but legal challenges have kept it open for now.

"If Dwight were to close, it wouldn't close us down, (but) it would certainly hurt us," Hetzner said.

When dogs slip on their vest, they also comfort the disabled, and those who are bed-ridden.

It not only helps those lives, but inmates too. Bonita, a former inmate who wants to conceal her identity, trained five dogs. She calls it life-changing.

"It gave me hope," she said. "It gave me something i felt confident in doing. The more I saw progress with the dogs, every time the dogs learned something, it wasn't just achievement for the dog. It was achievement for me. And we were doing it together."

A mission that now depends on the future.

"If Dwight was out of the picture, God would have to open another door," Hetzner said.

The K-9 program says it covers all expenses, and does not use any money from the Illinois Department of Corrections.

A spokeswoman for the corrections department says Dwight is expected to close because the state remains 100 percent committed to closing half-full, expensive facilities and saving taxpayers money.

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