Last weekend as I pulled into the parking lot of the Camden County Correctional Facility, I have to say I was a bit nervous not knowing what awaited me. Would the prisoners mind me holding up a camera to photograph their every move? Here I sit a week later and my reflections lead me to say that it was truly a heart warming and cherished experience.
I have met the most incredible and dedicated people on this journey of filming the many chapters in the Team Foster story. The beginning unfolds with Nick Liermann, the founder of Team Foster dedicated to honoring the spirit and sacrifice of Captain Erick Foster who was killed while engaging enemy forces in 2007 in Iraq. This organization took flight with the mantra, “No Hero Left Behind”, as they raise the much needed funds to provide service dogs to veterans suffering from combat-related disabilities. Nick’s vision, leadership and tireless work is truly an inspiration. Continuing with the unfolding of the story, there have been a few chapters which took me into the beautiful home of Sonny and Roxanne Wimberly with their service dog named Juno and to the gyms of schools where together with Brandon Holiday and his service dog Dyson, this dynamic team share so unselfishly with students, athletes and the general public about the enormous contribution a service dog can make to a wounded veteran. Dogs are trained to open doors, retrieve phones and call 911 (yes, you read that right!), wake up someone in the throes of a terrible nightmare by turning on the lights, pulling off covers and kissing them awake. These dogs are able to sense when someone is going into a diabetic shock and so much more. They are constant companions of the highest calling for those who followed another calling of protection and service.
The story continues to be packed with the thrilling action of unselfish giving. The setting is now in the Camden County Correctional Facility. In the parking lot, I met Marissa Corbett who I will never be able to figure out how she manages to accomplish as much as she does in 24 hours. Marissa is the owner of Above and Beyond Dog Training and is totally committed to the work of Team Foster. She radiates kindness! It was Marissa who approached the CCCF and with the innovative administration of the CCCF they worked to start a program which enables the inmates to train the dogs and prepare them as service dogs.
The inmates sign up for this and choose to all live dormitory style with the dogs 24/7 rather than remain in a cell for two. Needless to say, it is tight and can be trying but what I witnessed was only the strength of bonding. There are two men per dog and they work in teams training the dogs on countless commands over the course of a few months. Officer Murphy, a woman who seems to only see the best in everyone, is assigned to work with Marissa and the two are definitely impressively capable. As I watched them, their belief and positive energy was contagious to us all. The gentle men were all laughing, joking, and so very kind to me when I had to ask for retakes or repeats to get the action in stills and video. They allowed me the privilege of capturing them on film when most people would try to hide any incarceration. These men are focused on the power of the bigger picture and helping others. While I was interviewing each one, there was a seriousness that entered into the interaction because they were so intent on getting across the transformational power of this program. During this time of looking ahead to Thanksgiving and looking back on Veterans’ Day, one man stated that he felt so very grateful because he was now able to give back.
Without a moment of nervousness and only excitement, I look forward to returning next month to film the graduation ceremony where the dogs will leave the tender care of the gentlemen and lovingly take their leave on the next journey of faithful companionship. My sincere and heartfelt gratitude to Nick Liermann, Marissa Corbett, Officer Murphy, Lt. Clifford Kareem for making this filming possible and to the men who have committed to this program and making a positive difference, thank you so much for allowing me the honor of raising my camera to capture your smiles, your intensity and the tender moments shared with the dogs.
“A hero is somebody who is selfless, who is generous in spirit, who just tries to give back as much as possible and help people. A hero to me is someone who uplifts people and who really deeply cares” (Debi Mazar). I have met many heroes along this journey!