Prison inmates train service dogs to help kids with autism

CHINO, Calif.

For 4-year-old Marlee Paris, who is living with Asperger's syndrome, a black Labrador named Shasta has opened up her life.

"She has difficulty communicating with other people and expressing the way she feels," her mother, Desiree Paris, said. "When she's with Shasta, she's able to communicate with her like they're best friends."

Marlee has had the service dog for almost four months.

"It makes a huge difference, not only for my daughter, but for everybody in the family," Paris said.

Shasta is part of a program called Pathways to Hope, where service dogs are trained by inmates at the California Institute for Women at Chino.

Mary Jane Richardson is serving a life sentence and has been at the correctional facility for 22 years.

"It's worth a million bucks to know that I had a part of helping an autistic child and to provide something that they may need," Richardson said.

It's estimated that one out of every four dogs that comes into the program will graduate and become a service animal. But even the ones that don't make it will be adopted out to loving families.

"They know all their basic obedience, know a few tricks, and they end up in wonderful and loving homes," said Janette Thomas of Pathways to Hope. "The people just love this program."

Pathways to Hope has been operating for two years. It's a program that has success stories in people not only like Marlee, but the people who train the animals as well.

"It just gives you a sense of accomplishment, a sense of giving know that you're doing something for someone," said Richardson, holding back tears. "It helps heal."

Copyright © 2024 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.