ROCKWELL CITY - Darwin Cobeen lived a troubled life.
Eighteen years ago, Cobeen's life was full of "serious domestic issues," he said. He was charged with first degree burglary and second degree kidnapping.
After that, he was sentenced to spend the next 23 years in prison.
Masked inmates show off their dog’s training at the ninth annual Puppy Day at North Central Correctional Facility Sunday.
But he's a different person now, he said, thanks to Willow and the five other puppies he has helped train into guide dogs for the blind as part of North Central Correctional Facility's Leader Dog program.
"There isn't a day I don't wake up and thank God for this program," said Cobeen. "I didn't think it was going to affect me like this, but it changed my heart and turned me around."
Cobeen spoke before a crowd of around 150 people Sunday, trying not to choke up, at NCCF's Puppy Day, which was devoted to recognizing the hard work on the part of the 53 inmates in the program, and the people who donate to keep it up and running.
Inmates spent the afternoon showing the prison visitors the training they had instilled in the young dogs, which if all goes well, will go on to receive more advanced training from the Rochester, Mich. based charity Leader Dogs for the Blind.
The inmates also shared how the dogs had impacted their own lives.
"A problem my whole life has been taking on responsibility," said inmate John Moore.
Taking on the care of a dog was a huge responsibility for him compared to what he had experienced at other facilities, such as Anamosa State Penitentiary where he was before, he said.
"I don't know what it is about the program, but I actually feel like I've done something with my life for a change," said Moore.
The program does to help people on both ends, according to the statistics. Not only do the disabled receive companion dogs, but inmates in program have an 85 percent success rate concerning recidivism once they are released from NCCF.
Volunteer Abby Swank has seen that success first hand.
"When they first come in the people are selfish, they think the world revolves around them," said Swank. "It's remarkable to watch them change over the year they have their puppy."
NCCF's Leader Dog program was started nine years ago by Jim McKinney, former North Central Correctional Facility warden. In April, McKinney and Fort Dodge Correctional Facility Warden Cornell Smith switched prisons, for reasons undisclosed by the Department of Corrections.
But now that McKinney can no longer be a formal part of NCCF's program, he would like to bring the program to FDCF, and officials from Leader Dogs for the Blind toured the facility Friday.
Though there are concerns because FDCF is a higher security prison, McKinney is optimistic and hopes the program can get started by the end of October.
"When you start a program like this, all you want to do is touch a life," said McKinney.
Contact Ian Schmit at (515) 573-2141 or firstname.lastname@example.org