By Jamie Penn Photos by Jennifer Simpson
Kyria Henry, at 27, has the voice of a sage, laced with a calm and presence that one can only assume is born of the fulfillment, self-assurance, and selflessness that got her where she is today.
Henry started an organization called paws4people in 1999 at the age of 12, recognizing that dogs not only enhance people’s lives, but that they have the power to turn lives around, to prolong life, and in dire situations, to save a life.
The idea spawned from visits with her grandparents in a nursing home in Virginia, where Henry grew up. Her sidekick at the time, a Golden Retriever named RILEY, accompanied her a few times and inevitably made her grandparents’ day, illuminating them in a way she hadn’t seen before.
With the support of her parents, Henry ran with the idea of partnering with canines to change people’s lives, and began visiting nursing homes throughout the county with RILEY in tow. The journey that would take her, her family, and thousands of people in need to heights they couldn’t fathom, began there.
“I never made a business plan or a five-year plan,” Henry said. “It was never really a conscious decision, opportunities were just sort of placed in my path. It’s way bigger than me at this point.”
Big, indeed. paws4people and its subsidiaries, paws4vets, paws4prisons, and paws4seniors, have been featured on Fox News, the Washington Post (among many other publications), and, in 2010, Henry won the Ikea Life Improvement Project’s Life Improvements Sabbatical contest, allowing Henry to focus her efforts entirely on paws4pets by awarding her organization $100,000. Henry’s goal was to establish paid positions for at least a few of the then 170 volunteers.
Four years later, her organization has five full-time employees on its 11-member staff, more than 230 volunteers, and 200 trained service dogs. Henry has become an expert in the field of assistance dog training and an educational innovator, and was involved in starting the first Assistance Dog Academic Certification program at the university level through UNCW’s School of Health and Applied Human Sciences. She’s now an instructor for the Assistance Dog Training program at UNCW and serves as adjunct faculty at UNC Chapel Hill.
Henry became a certified dog trainer at Bergin University of Canine Studies after receiving her Bachelor’s degree in business, speech pathology, and religious studies. She later received a Master’s in Human Services from Liberty University. Once all of this gets into your blood, Henry says, it’s hard to stop. Although she’s satisfied with her education thus far, it’s hard to satiate her desire to charge ahead.
“My friends keep asking me when I’m going for my PhD,” she says, with a laugh. “But, I think it’s time to take a long break.”
A commitment to service and a dedicated approach seems to run in the family. Henry’s father, Terry Henry, now paws4pets COO, quit his job at a telecommunications company in 2002 to fully dedicate himself to Henry’s organization.
“Although we have part-time employees, no one is part-time here. Our employees continue to go above and beyond what we expect,” Mr. Henry said.
Employees and volunteers are scattered across the southeastern U.S., servicing the multi-faceted dog training and placement system in place. Golden Retriever and Labrador puppies are born in a breeding facility here in Wilmington. After a few weeks, their worldly little lives begin. They are sent first to a puppy development center in Atlanta, then to a prison assistance dog training program in West Virginia. Their education ends—and in some ways, begins—at UNCW, where they undergo public access training. Once a client (or recipient) is chosen, the dog and the recipient go through a transfer training program together, which could take a few sessions to over a year, depending on the situation.
The bottom line, Henry says, is that these dogs increase the quality of life for everyone involved in the process. Whether the obstacle is PTSD, or severe mental and physical challenges of special-needs children, these dogs are trained to help surmount any obstacle.
“The dogs are truly providing people with a new lease on life,” she says.
It’s evident that paws4people has a profound effect on trainers and clients alike. “So many of our recipients jump right back into the program as volunteers.” And that, she says, is when the program’s success really shines.
For more information, visit paws4people.org.