Paralyzed former deputy finds new freedom through service dog trained in prisoner program

Despite less-than-desirable circumstances -- in a prison, in a wheelchair, facing a short life or facing shutting down, Doggone Express brings hope, help and happier days to many.

ANGIE --  Seven miles from the Louisiana-Mississippi state line, between the communities of Angie and Varnado, sits the B.B. Sixty Rayburn Correctional Center.

Inside it's medium security walls are almost 1,300 inmates, serving time for crimes from burglary to murder.

For the past 10 years, Mary Mayo says her life has been like living behind bars, but in the form of a wheelchair.

She was paralyzed as a St. Tammany Sheriff's deputy, riding in a patrol vehicle with her fiance, Deputy Beau Raimer, when a tree fell on their unit. They were riding as part of a funeral procession for another deputy.  Raimer died in the accident.

A decade later, Mayo has adapted to the confines of her reality, but she wants to be able to do more.

Yet, she's going inside the gates of Rayburn Prison to find that link to freedom.  

It is Willow, a stray dog facing an uncertain future, who was rescued by the Doggone Express program.  

The program, run by Bill Barse, pairs saved shelter dogs with prisoners looking for a new purpose.  Barse says it turns out trained, adoptable dogs and changes men and women.

"Many of the inmates have told me, even when they've gotten out, that the program has restored their lives, but I think it's the dogs that have changed their lives," Barse said.

"It fills my day, gives me something to say 'I did that,'" said inmate Joe Marine, "I haven't really done a whole lot in my life that's worth while talking about. But when a dog leaves here, a good dog like her, I get like a, I did that."

The training ranges from basic commands like sit and stay to more extensive targeted training to help people with disabilities, like Mary.

"She picks up the brush, the ball and the phone on command," Marine said.

All skills especially crafted for Mayo after Barse saw an Eyewitness News report about her continued struggles.

"Willow has been taught to pick things up, which is the hardest part for me. When I drop something it might as well be a mile a way rather than a couple of feet. It's just really hard," Mayo said. "Having that help will be amazing to me, it'll be life changing."

"I am hoping that the interaction between Mary and Willow is a growing process for both of them and that the bonding becomes very close," Barse said. "That they become each other's best friends and that Mary's quality of life improves."

Another way she's hoping to gain more independence is through purchasing a handicapped-accessible van.  After a year of fundraising, she's shy just $10,000 from her goal.

"The community has been a lot of help so far and I just need that little bit more to get my vehicle so I can be truly independent and not be stuck in my house all day," she said.

As for Doggone Express, though the non-profit has expanded over time to other state and parish correctional facilities, it's only running now at Rayburn.  Barse says to continue the program into its sixth year there, he'll need renewed financial support from the community and soon.

But despite less-than-desirable circumstances -- in a prison, in a wheelchair, facing a short life or facing shutting down, Doggone Express brings hope, help and happier days to many.

If you'd like to help keep the Doggone Express program going, visit their website.

If you'd like to donate to help Mary get her van, visit this link.

© 2017 WWL-TV


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