During Anthony Hernandez's senior year of high school, he was struggling to hold his life together. He faced difficulties at home, wasn't showing up for school and was uncertain about his future.
Amidst all of this, Anthony was introduced to a Los Angeles-based program called K9 Connection. Started by Pat Sinclair and Katherine Beattie, the program enlists at-risk teens to train and care for abandoned shelter dogs. The hope in training the dogs is for the animals to become more adoptable and for the kids to learn patience, gain a sense of responsibility and feel empowered knowing they helped save a dog's life.
Like Anthony, a lot of the kids in the program have had difficult upbringings. Some are on the verge of dropping out of high school, others are in foster care, have parents in jail or have experienced abuse.
Co-founder Pat Sinclair says, "We often work with kids who are lonely and have never felt a part of anything." When the kids start in the three-week program, Pat says, "they see these dogs who have been abandoned, abused and neglected and they feel like if there's hope for the dogs, than there's hope for them."
Anthony is now a K9 Connection intern and mentor to students new to the program. When he started the program, he says he immediately related to his dog, Bear Man. "We both felt trapped in a way," he explains.
Bonding with Bear Man and learning how to train him, Anthony says, deeply affected both of their lives. The Newfoundland mix was adopted by a loving family and Anthony says he learned to became more open. With the help of K9 volunteers, he also decided to further his education.
Along with teaching the kids to train dogs, K9 Connection brings in motivational speakers, gives the students career advice and teaches them how to write a resumé.
During a recent training session, one student said she was going to school every day for the first time in a long time. When you have a dog depending on you, you have to show up, she explained.
At the graduation for the kids and dogs, Pat says the students are proud and feel a sense of achievement. When the dogs are adopted, she says, it is "bittersweet for the kids." They form a lasting bond with the animals, and although they are sad when the program ends, they are happy that their dog has found a permanent and loving home.