JEFFERSON, La. You could feel the excitement Wednesday afternoon at the Jefferson Parish animal shelter on the Eastbank. Employees had just finished decorating, with Carnival colors, signs, and balloons.
They were preparing to surprise 34-year-old Jaymee Randell with an 18-month-old golden retriever/yellow lab named Blondie, and ultimately, give the two a new lease on life.
'She deserved a nice surprise,' said Randell's mother, Angela.
Jaymee Randell is deaf. And the Pensacola woman spent years searching for the right dog to help her become more independent.
'I told her I couldn't afford to buy her a support dog because they're like $8,000 or $9,000,' said Angela Randell.
That's where Blondie comes in. Jaymee Randell recently found Blondie online, a shelter dog who could be hers for a $100 donation. What's more, the canine was being trained in a special program, and could fit her needs.
She fell in love, but was told the canine was already spoken for.
Turns out, Randell's mother was holding the dog as a surprise that would be revealed during Wednesday's visit to the New Orleans metro area.
The shelter staff shed tears as Randell met the dog for the first time, embracing her new companion and smiling.
Blondie was trained through a growing program called From the Big House to Your House, run by the Belle Chasse non-profit, Doggone Express.
Select dogs like Blondie, who end up in the Jefferson Parish shelter, are chosen to be trained by inmates in one of two state prisons. Some are trained to be companion dogs, making them more adoptable. Others are trained for service, and some have already been placed through agencies the Wounded Warrior Project.
So far, nearly 40 dogs have been part of the program since it began last summer.
'It's the greatest glory that anyone can have is being able to reach down and help another up, whether it be on four legs or two legs,'said program founder William Barse.
Blondie has been trained to respond to a whistle and a vibrating collar, on top of commands in sign language.
And the canine is expected to continue to adapt to Randell's needs.
'We have found that sometimes just being around the recipient the dog will start to alert them just naturally,' said Barse. 'The canine doesn't know that the recipient, or the owner, can't hear, but it will continue to do things until it gets the owners attention.'
The idea is that Randell's new found independence, with the help of Blondie, will allow her to live on her own and find a job.
'I think the dog will alert her to sounds that she wouldn't hear,' said Angela Randell.
'[I] will have a new life now, [I] want to be happy, [I've] been depressed,' said Randell, using sign language interpreted by her mother.
When asked if she had any words for her new companion, Randell said, through her mother's interpretation, 'Thank you for saving [my] life.'
'Saving paws and saving souls.' That's the mission of Doggone Express. And Wednesday, Randell and Blondie saved each other, and forming the beginning of a lifelong bond.
'I think Jaymee and Blondie, they're going to be friends for a long time,' said Angela Randell.
Doggone Express is able to offer service and companion dogs for a $100 donation.
The program is funded, in part, by Modern American Recycling Services, as well as donations from community members.
Barse plans to expand the program to several more state prisons and hope to eventually have the program in every prison in Louisiana.