Pet project has grown with her
Sunday, January 16, 2011
The idea began when Kyria Henry was 12 years old and saw how much joy her golden retriever, Riley, brought to her grandparents during visits to the nursing home where they lived. Before long, her parents were acting as a taxi service for the preteen and her dog, shuttling the pair to nursing homes across Loudoun County so that they could lift the spirits of elderly residents. Henry's project, which she named paws4people, became a charitable foundation that year.
Her parents cheered on their only child, Henry said. Her father quit his job as a director at an international telecommunications company in 2002 to devote his time to his daughter's foundation. Her mother continued to support the family.
"That was a big lifestyle shift," Henry said. "Our family has made a lot of sacrifices, but we really believe in what we're doing."
At 23, Henry is the founder and deputy executive director of the paws4people foundation, a thriving nonprofit organization that spans nine states, with more than 175 dogs certified to work as service animals for people who need them, including special-education students, seniors, combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and seriously ill or disabled people. Many of the dogs are trained in federal correctional institutions in West Virginia and Georgia - paws4people is the only nonprofit group to operate dog-training programs in federal prisons that pair the dogs with people with disabilities, Henry said.
Henry is also one of five finalists in Ikea's national Life Improvement Sabbatical Contest, which will award $100,000 to a grand prize winner this month to help him or her spend one year improving the lives of others. The contest received nearly 2,000 entries, according to its Web site.
Asked how she managed to juggle high school and college with the ever-expanding responsibilities of running a nonprofit organization, Henry smiled and shrugged: "It's kind of in my nature to do extra."
For Henry, "extra" meant spending her free time training dogs and working with the animals in nursing homes and in classrooms with severely disabled children, where the dogs acted as a special incentive for the students to reach their goals.
While she attended West Virginia University, it meant traveling every weekend after paws4people was approached by a federal prison administrator who asked whether Henry could set up a prison dog-training program.
"Some of the very best dog trainers in the world have been made in there," Henry said. Inmates undergo a rigorous year-long program to prepare them for training the animals, she said. "There's no part of our system that isn't helping someone."
Henry's schedule has only gotten busier since she graduated from college in 2009. As she talked about paws4people at a sandwich shop in Leesburg, while a black Lab named Wyatt lay patiently at her feet, Henry glanced at her BlackBerry and said that in less than an hour, she would begin a 400-mile drive to a federal prison in West Virginia to complete a training program. After that, she would have another long drive to northern West Virginia, to transport puppies to another prison, before returning home to Round Hill.
"This is pretty much what my life looks like," she said.
The foundation's team of more than 170 volunteers also devotes an enormous amount of time and energy to the cause, Henry said, adding that the organization has no paid staff.