MONTEREY, the United States, Jan. 10 (Xinhua) -- RobinLynn Patton, 17, is eloquent and looks joyful when she talks on the other end of FaceTime, always carrying a big smile.
But the young girl was very different only a couple of years ago, when she had a difficult time as a student. "Like many rebellious teenagers, I was locked in my own world and unwilling to talk to anyone else. The school time was a torment for me," she said from Salinas, California, over the phone.
Things began to change when Patton, also known to her friends as "Kiki," was introduced to a dog, Lady, in Spring 2017.
WHEN THE TROUBLED MEETS THE TROUBLED
Kiki remembers well when she first met Lady, then a six-month shepherd mix. With her body tensed, Lady was shivering in the corner, while two other dogs in the room were playing joyfully.
Also in the room were five other teenagers and three dog trainers, who were in a program run by the nonprofit organization UnChained.
Kiki noticed Lady in the corner, walked up and tried to give her a pat. Lady dodged. She did not want to be touched by anyone.
Bewildered, Kiki was told that Lady had a trust issue because she had been abandoned twice, and was not able to trust anyone.
Kiki felt strongly connected to the dog, and was determined to help her. At that time, Kiki had her own problems and was not able to effectively communicate with people. A therapist introduced her to UnChained.
UnChained works in the counties of Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Clara, all in California. Through its Canines Teaching Compassion program, UnChained trainers teach at-risk youth how to train homeless dogs in basic skills, manners and socialization, helping the dogs be adopted into permanent homes.
Kiki began her UnChained journey as a Youth Trainer for Lady. With the guidance of UnChained dog trainers, Kiki and another girl cooperated to train Lady twice a week for eight weeks.
"Lady was like a good book that I didn't want to put down. We understood each other without even talking," she said. "I never wanted to go home after class. Being there made me feel calm and excited at the same time. Lady was somebody who was not a person, but who needed my help. I really liked that."
At the end of the program, Lady rebuilt her trust with humans and learned how to interact with people properly, before being adopted by a loving family.
Kiki changed, too.
"I was not a very good student at that time. I didn't care so much about my classes and grades. Lady helped me with my self-esteem and confidence, so that I could pass my classes and get higher scores," she said over the phone. "She also taught me to care more about my friends, my family and myself."
At the graduation ceremony after eight weeks, Kiki met with Lady's new family and said goodbye to her furry friend. Happy for Lady and herself as well, Kiki cried happy tears.
Founded in August 2011 by Melissa Wolf, UnChained works with two vulnerable populations: at-risk youth and homeless dogs.
Youth served are primarily between the ages of 12 to 24, who often live in poverty and have ties with gangs and drugs.
Each UnChained program focuses on six young people and three dogs. Youth Trainers are paired in teams of two and work with one dog and one adult trainer, twice a week for two to four hours per week.
Classes also include discussions about humane education that support youths' development of good stewardship toward all sentient beings.
According to Kristen Fletcher, executive director of UnChained, working with dogs who often share similar experience of neglect, abandonment and abuse enables at-risk youths to develop compassion and respect for others while building confidence and self-worth.
The youths will also develop values of patience and responsibility for themselves and others, through the building of trust and relationship with their dogs, she added.
So far, UnChained has helped over 370 youths and 170 dogs in Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. Around 92 percent of the program dogs are adopted within 30 days of program completion.
"When we inspire young people to be their best people by caring for others, such as dogs in need, we are building a community of compassion and a future of hope for all people," said Melissa Wolf, founder and board president of UnChained.
"By working with underserved youth, UnChained puts the dogs and youth in the driver's seat to offer each other second chances to a better life," she said.
Volunteers play an important role in the success of UnChained and are the heart of the nonprofit organization's mission.
Apart from six paid staff, UnChained now has a network of more than 180 volunteers. Kiki became a volunteer, too. Not satisfied with being a trainer only, she wanted to contribute more to the organization that has changed her life.
After helping find Lady a loving home, Kiki joined UnChained as a volunteer for fundraising events in Monterey and Santa Cruz.
Kiki has an even bigger dream. She has recently registered for an Emergency Medical Technicians program.
"I am planning to apply for Stanford University, and I want to become a trauma nurse someday," Kiki said with a smile, showing her cardinal Stanford T-shirt over the phone screen.