Blaze Cantrell came up with an artful idea to boost the adoption of rescued dogs.
Cantrell, who was a first-year teacher in Harrisburg last year, had her third- through sixth-grade art students do portraits of dogs in the Arkansas Paws in Prison program to help them get those dogs into homes. Cantrell's art students spent the last two or three weeks of the 2021-22 school year making original art based on the pictures of dogs that were available through the program.
"After I explained the program to them -- because they were like, 'The dogs are in prison?' -- some of them were super excited to do this," says Cantrell of the kids in her class. "They have big hearts."
Paws in Prison pairs inmates at seven prison facilities in Arkansas with rescued dogs, and the inmates teach the dogs obedience skills and help with their socialization, which makes them more likely to be adopted. The program not only reduces the number of dogs euthanized each year, it also helps the prisoners involved with rehabilitation and re-entry into their communities because it gives them a chance to work on their own interaction skills and do something good for their state.
"My mother is actually the warden's secretary at the McPherson Unit and I knew about the Paws in Prison program," she says. "My family has worked there and I've known about the Arkansas Department of Corrections my whole life and so when she told me about that program I was like, 'That's awesome for adoptions.'"
One child drew a picture of a dog at the center of a colorful sunburst, another portrayed a dog larger than the flowers and trees around it, and there was also one enjoying a sunny day on what looks like a farm, with trees and a red barn in the background.
"We took our Chromebooks and I uploaded all the photos of the dogs and I assigned each student a dog," Cantrell says.
She shared information with them about how the dogs in the Paws in Prison program get adopted, through partner rescue groups that the training program officials work with to make sure each potential adopter is vetted before taking a dog home. Adoption fees vary, but they are usually somewhere near $250.
"We talked about the kinds of dogs the kids would want to adopt and I think a lot of them went home and told their parents about the program, so that's good, that more people know about the adoption process in general now because of this."
When Cantrell hand-delivered the one-of-a-kind artwork of Paws in Prison dogs to the organization, she got the chance to see some of the training efforts.
"They went through the tricks and how you should be training them to eat and go outside and play with other animals," Cantrell says. "Watching the inmates interact with the dogs was just awesome. I think it's a good program for the simple fact that being in prison is just a terrible thing anyways. You feel isolated and alone and the fact that this just promotes good behavior because you have to be like a year incident-free to participate is really good."
Each dog in the Paws in Prison program, says Cantrell, has a folder.
"It's a journal type of thing that the inmate trainers keep and they write down tricks that the dogs can do, favorite foods that they like and different things that they observed during the 10 weeks that they have the dogs," she explains. The journals go to the homes that adopt the dogs.
Cantrell found inspiration for the art project in a TikTok video made by another teacher who had students draw pictures of shelter animals.
"I know some people think it's just dancing or whatever on TikTok but it's really an awesome place for teachers to share ideas," she says.
She is proud of her students' willingness to help.
"I asked my students if they wanted a picture of their artwork I could take or copy it for them but they all donated their artwork, and that artwork is going to be added to the dogs' portfolios."
Cantrell's roommate is in the process of adopting a dog, but she admits she tends toward felines.
"I really love all animals," she says. "I do like dogs, but I'm more of a cat person."
Cantrell has moved back to southeast Arkansas, where she grew up, and she will be teaching third grade in McGehee in the fall. She will have her own class of 20 or so students, rather than pulling students from several grades and classes for regular art classes.
She is considering taking on a similar project in her new school, and she's weighing the option of auctioning off the artwork to raise money for another organization.
"I, for sure, think it's a good thing and would like to keep going," she says.
More information about Paws in Prison is available at doc.arkansas.gov/correction/paws-in-prison/.