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Presbyterian congregation joins with its neighbor, a prison, to live out its Matthew 25 calling


Incarcerated individuals can make dogs more adoptable by training them

July 1, 2023

Once its All God’s Creatures animal shelter is opened, First Presbyterian Church plans to deepen its partnership with the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility. (Photos by Rich Copley/Presbyterian Mission Agency)

Marcy Stroud, the warden at the minimum-security Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, remembers very well the day she received a cold call from the Rev. Trey Hegar, pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

“We as a church are trying to find ways to help our community and love our neighbors,” she heard from Hegar. “You are literally our neighbor. Here are some ideas we have,” including establishing All God’s Creatures, which when it opens will be Henry County’s only animal shelter.

“I thought that was the neatest thing, looking at who surrounds us and how we can help the community,” said Stroud, whose mother was the warden’s secretary and therefore grew up on the grounds of the prison, which emphasizes reentry for its incarcerated individuals. Before the pandemic, the prison had teamed with an organization in nearby Ft. Madison to socialize dogs and make them more adoptable. “We knew All God’s Creatures was waiting in the wings,” Stroud said, and the partnership has become stronger even before the shelter has actually opened.

Marcy Stroud

“Incarcerated individuals are really no different than you or I,” said David Smith, the prison’s deputy warden. “There’s a lot of benefit to having the companionship of a pet,” including a lowered stress level. Smith’s words later rang true during a prison site visit when several men paused their workouts when Hegar’s small dog made an appearance.

The work as handlers can also help the men find work upon their release. “If I can show they have dedicated a lot of hours, that definitely makes them more employable,” Smith said. “They can prove to someone they have done the work.”

“It shows a renewed sense of responsibility,” Stroud said. “I believe that can transcend the incarceration.”

Kim Ridinger (contributed photo)

“The community doesn’t necessarily know about this yet,” said Kate Ridinger, a board member of All God’s Creatures, a commission of First Presbyterian Church. “We have let people know there are people we really want to connect with, and the prison was one of those populations.”

“We want to make sure it’s going to work, and that the community will rally behind it,” Ridinger said. “People who live here really deserve that connection. They live and work here, and yet people drive right past the [prison] building and think, cool building!”

Smith said a “large number” of dogs trained by incarcerated individuals get adopted by the members of the prison’s 240 staff. “I think the benefit for staff is seeing people be successful,” Smith said.

David Smith

“Our incarcerated individuals and staff have a commonality,” Stroud said. “We have staff bring their adopted dogs back so the handlers can see them again.” Stroud recalled the story of Martha, a dog with a weight problem who came to the prison and slept many hours each day on a baby mattress. “She got trimmed up and she was healthy and spunky,” Stroud said. “A handler adopted her after he got out of prison.”

Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility also partners with a group that trains dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s a project that’s taken seriously” within prison walls, Stroud said, “because of the people it helps.”

“You see incarcerated individuals and now they have a dog and there is a lot of pride, and there should be,” Smith said. “It’s a privilege,” and they’re willing to share what they learn with others, he said.

“I can think of incidences where behavior greatly improved when they had an animal to care for,” Stroud said. Added Smith: “I am biased because I love animals. If you walk through an area with a dog, it just improves the place. People are happier.”

Successful partnerships “show a softer side,” according to Ridinger. “People sometimes think partnering with a prison can be dangerous, but the success of this will show that stigma needs to go.” Ridinger toured the prison a few weeks ago. “It’s a minimum-security facility. The incarcerated individuals are walking around. Leaving there, I felt so much better. I could feel that ingrained notion slipping away. If I can change my mind, I hope I can spread that positivity toward other people. We can all come together around animals.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: A congregation lives in to a Matthew 25 calling

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Margaret Gay, Associate, International Property, World Mission, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Kristen Gaydos, Communications Director, Presbyterian Historical Society

Let us pray

Loving God, help us to remember that we can grow to know and love you in the small congregation as well as the big congregation. Grant that all of us may find the joy of your Spirit as we drop what we have in service to others. Amen.

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