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Former Inmate Gives Back at Tulsa Salon

It’s a busy day at the salon, with dozens of customers getting their hair cut and blown out, having their nails done or just being primped and pampered.
Former Inmate Gives Back at Tulsa Salon

Muddy Paws Executive Director Christy VanCleave with Katie, her West Highland terrier.

In the mirrors that line the room, clients admire their makeovers. But this is not your typical neighborhood spa. On the opposite side of the suite is a room lined with cages, where newly coiffed prima donnas bask in their beauty and wait for owners to take them home to their canine castles.

Christy VanCleave is the brainchild behind Muddy Paws, a non-profit program that offers dog grooming, boarding, day care and training. In addition to serving Tulsa-area pet owners and their beloved dogs, Muddy Paws groomers have spruced up hundreds of rescue dogs since it opened in 2009, giving unwanted mutts a second chance.

While dogs are getting second chances, so are the groomers. Most of the groomers are inmates who come to Muddy Paws for job training, and those marketable job skills may be the key to a new life.

Oklahoma has the highest female incarceration rate in the world. Many female inmates have been incarcerated more than once, and some even have family members in jail as well. VanCleave says they have no idea how to break the cycle of crime, addiction and incarceration.

It’s a cycle VanCleave understands. She was incarcerated five times in California, mostly for drug charges.

In 2000, she was able to break that cycle, staying 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,” she said, “so I had that to fall back on when I came out.”

She advanced in the company but was eventually laid off during an economic downturn. She was broke and jobless, but unlike some offenders, she had marketable skills. And she had a dream: She wanted to help women like her who couldn’t support themselves and their families.

“Every time I went back in, I’d see the same women going in or out. They couldn’t make a living working at fast food or cleaning hotels,” VanCleave said. So they ended up back in jail.

The former offender soon combined her dream of helping other women with her love of dogs. 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.

The grooming business relies heavily on private funding, but Muddy Paws also partners with the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education. The CareerTech Skills Center staff helps identify women in corrections centers around the state who would be good candidates for the program. The women are then 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.

“Muddy Paws and CareerTech is a natural partnership,” said Roy Peters, former CareerTech state director. “CareerTech gets students to the right program at the right time; they know how to reintegrate these ladies into society.”

Peters is a self-proclaimed dog lover, and he and his pooch are regulars at Muddy Paws. He got involved with Pets Helping People after attending a fundraiser with his neighbor, and he soon found himself serving on the board.

“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 provides a portion of Muddy Paws’ operating money and offers placement help for graduates, and the agency donated computer hardware and digital curriculum to the program. In a makeshift classroom at Muddy Paws, trainees can get life skills training, study for WorkKeys assessments or prep for their GED exams.

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. Amy Hamilton, Tulsa Technology Center’s industrial coordinator, said that in all of the classes, students study at their own pace.

“This is a great example of how competency-based, blended learning works,” she said.

There’s good money to be made in the dog grooming business. Van Cleave said one student graduated while she was still incarcerated and living in a halfway house and was making $800 a week. Even cleaning kennels in a pet store starts at $9 an hour, she added.

Program graduates leave with a pet stylist groomer certification and $1,000 worth of tools, financed by Pets Helping People. CareerTech gives them placement help when they finish the program.

Lea Ann Eastteam graduated from the program, and 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 admitted she could make more money at another shop, but said she’s been given so much at Muddy Paws that she likes to give back. The training and subsequent job have helped her stay off drugs and repair relationships with her family, she explained, and she is now taking care of her grandchildren—with a lot of support from VanCleave and the Muddy Paws staff.

This isn’t Eastteam’s first experience with CareerTech. She was in a horticulture landscape program before the dog grooming training.

“CareerTech gives you lots of opportunities,” she said. “It gives you skills and experiences that you would not ordinarily be able to get. It’s a head start.”

Although not all dogs are excited about the prospect of being groomed, dogs of all breeds and temperaments can find a friend at Muddy Paws. Van Cleave said all of her women 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.

“It takes a community to change an offender,” VanCleave said. “If you invest in others, that investment of your time and care and love … can change someone’s life.”

The partnership between Oklahoma CareerTech Skills Center, Muddy Paws and Tulsa Technology Center has had great success. The program has shown only a 4 percent recidivism rate. VanCleave’s tireless routine and endless patience may be among the major keys to that success, but she credits her employees as well.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this without them,” she said.

She also credits Oklahoma for the success of the program, saying, “Oklahomans are just more open to helping people.”


May 13, 2014


The Oklahoman: Former Inmate Gives Back at Tulsa Salon

Oklahoma Horizon video: Prisoners Pamper Pooches



For more information, contact Connie Romans, communications and marketing coordinator: 405.743.5153


The Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education provides leadership and resources and assures standards of excellence for a comprehensive statewide system of career and technology education. The system offers programs and services in 29 technology center districts operating on 59 campuses, 393 comprehensive school districts and 13 Skills Centers campuses that include three juvenile facilities.

The agency is governed by the State Board of Career and Technology Education and works closely with the State Department of Education and the State Regents for Higher Education to provide a seamless educational system for all Oklahomans.

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