Dogs can help women prisoners become better people. At least that's what two religious sisters have found through their unorthodox prison ministries.

When St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Teresa Lynch saw the Lifetime network's movie "Within These Walls" -- which was inspired by the life of Dominican Sister Pauline Quinn, who started a dog training program to work with hardened, violent prisoners -- she contacted her and asked her to bring her program California.

Eventually, Sister Quinn persuaded authorities at the California Institution for Women in Corona to begin a program. She enlisted the help of Canine Support Teams in Temecula, Calif., along with Sister Lynch, who is principal of St. Genevieve Elementary School.

A unique partnership formed, and inmates at the California Institution for Women are now training dogs to help wounded veterans.

All of the programs Sister Lynch started and Sister Quinn continues are designed to help inmates become focused on other people and to develop skills and confidence in their human dignity in hopes of helping them find jobs after they are released.

Shared times

Sister Quinn and Carol Roquemore of Canine Support Teams found they share some things in common. To call them disabled is almost a misnomer. Each has broken barriers and refused to accept physical and mental limitations in their love for God.

Roquemore had polio as a child, and today suffers from post-polio syndrome and multiple sclerosis. Sister Quinn spent some time living on the streets as a result of a dysfunctional home environment and today still suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome as well as a degenerative spine. Both were victims of family alcoholism, abuse and rape. Both share their faith through helping others to help themselves.

"I asked God, in the darkness of my youth, that if he helped me change my life, I would go out and help his people," Sister Quinn told OSV. "My life changed drastically, and I never looked back. Being tortured in my youth brought forth a new life of purpose and hope, rooted in God's love and mercy."

For Roquemore, faith in God helped her make a decision to not be hindered by her disability.

"There is a time in life when the soul is moved to dream of a vision, a hope. There was an instant when I had to decide whether to proceed or let go. I chose to proceed," she said. "Being disabled has brought a perspective to my life that has prepared me for God's plan for me."

Spreading the joy

In 1981, Sister Quinn began the prison-dog program in the Washington State Corrections Center for Women, rescuing shelter dogs and bringing them into the prison, where inmates trained them to assist children with handicaps. The inmates learned responsibility through the care and training of these special dogs.

The prisoners see the effect it has on them.

"By allowing us to be a part of something much bigger than prison, it [the prison-dog program] defines us in terms of our potential as human beings and not as mere statistics or, worse, the last bad thing we did," one prisoner said. "I can't make yesterday better, but because of this astonishing program, with [the dog] Joey's help, I can improve someone else's tomorrow."

Ann Ball writes from Texas. For more information on the program, visit www.pathwaystohope.org.