When I met Kyria (Kir-ee-ay) Henry, she was an adorable, 22-year old co-ed at West Virginia University. But unlike her peers, she wasn’t simply juggling a full class-load, cheerleading and a boyfriend, she was also co-running a very cool non-profit– A foundation that utilized prison inmates to train Assistance Dogs for children and vets.
Her journey had begun many years before, when she was just 12 and desperate for a puppy. When she finally got Riley, he was her constant companion, even going with her to visit her grandparents. And while some kids might have objected to taking a back-seat to their dog, Kyria was thrilled to see her grandparents light up as they interacted with the lively fellow.
After seeing how her grandparents responded to Riley, she took him to a local nursing home. I asked her what she remembers about that first visit, “I just remember watching Riley as if he was my child and being so proud and realizing there was such value in what he was doing for people.”
When she told her parents that she wanted to find a way for Riley to make more people happy and to train more dogs to make even more people happy, she had their full support. And in 1999, paws4people™ Foundation was born. The initial mission: To provide service dogs who could make a difference in nursing homes and special education classrooms.
In those early days, Kyria was a middle school student and her parents both worked full-time. As important as the Foundation was, it had to be run in their spare time. But as more and more requests came in and the mission expanded, Kyria’s dad, Terry quit his full-time job, opting for part-time work. Eventually, he gave that up to devote full-time to the expanding paws4people™. The family learned to live on Mom/Debbie’s salary.
In 2007, and in college, Kyria met with staff from the Bureau of Prisons and paws4prisons became a reality. As one of the inmate/trainers recently told me with a twinkle in her eye, “Paws4people needed free trainers and we…well… we were available.” Not only could more dogs be trained, but everyone would see first-hand the amazing impact the training process had on the trainers.
Today, paws4people™ Foundation boasts 250 trained and “matched” Assistance Dogs, 50 more currently in training and 250 volunteers and trainers. And Kyria and Terry breed their own puppies for training.
The mission has been greatly expanded: To train and place Assistance Dogs with children and adolescents with physical, neurological, psychiatric or emotional disabilities; and Veterans and active-duty Service Members with Chronic/Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and/or Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).
Turning 25 this July, Kyria has completed not just her under graduate degree, but has completed her masters as well. In addition to working full-time for paws4people™, she is teaching the first and only of its kind, a 4-course series Assistance Dog Certificate Program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
For some, having a service dog means help with the little things that can be big, like not
having to wait for a teacher or another student to pick up the pencil that has just been dropped. For others, it means having the courage to do things some might take for granted, like being able to walk into a grocery store. And for a teacher, it means finding new ways to reach his/her students.
Soon Rachael’s dog, Dawson, will be done with his prison training and will move in with her full-time. “My goal is to become more independent…He will be able to help me by opening doors, retrieving items, turning lights on and off, having Dawson around in case of emergency is a big one for me… To Kyria and Terry: You have changed MY life forever!”
Jennifer’s son Alex has been matched with a paws4people™ dog as well. “Kingsley is going to be a huge step in Alex’s journey towards independence and we have Kyria to thank for that. She is one of those rare people who sees past the wheelchair and the cerebral palsy and sees the potential that the future holds.” Alex, a high school senior, says, “She inspires me to move past my “disability” and utilizing an amazing dog to help me do so makes it even cooler.”
Clearly Kyria has some pretty incredible parents. In Kyria’s words, “They have been amazing supports. My dad is obviously amazing. His passion and commitment for what we’re doing just proves to me that this is all divinely orchestrated…The fact that we are able to do it together is really, really wonderful.”
Ever humble, when I asked Kyria what she thinks about her accomplishments, she responded, “They aren’t my accomplishments, they are really everyone’s… I am just trying to spend each day doing a few more things [ ] in order to keep us on this amazing path.”
Riley has long since been laid to rest, but Kyria’s passion for expanding the number of people she can help; both trainers and recipients lives on. Having accomplished all this in 12 years, I can only imagine the difference she will be making 12 years from now.
Inspired by Kyria? Click here to learn more and to join her in making a difference.