Therapy dog rescues Bremerton woman from the dark

Kayla Rochelle sits with her therapy dog Stella outside her work at Steel City Café in Bremerton. - Christopher Carter/staff photo
Kayla Rochelle sits with her therapy dog Stella outside her work at Steel City Café in Bremerton.
— image credit: Christopher Carter/staff photo

Kayla Rochelle will always carry the remnants of her painful past.

Having cut herself as a child, the scars on her arms remain and people who meet her take notice. Sometimes she tells the truth and other times she tells people it was a blender accident.

“I used to think that if anybody saw me, they’d think I was a freak,” said Rochelle, who once refused to wear short sleeves.

Rochelle, 19, was in and out of inpatient treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder more than a dozen times during her adolescence and got much of her schooling in the hospital, she said. A victim of severe trauma as a child, she was bulimic since she was 10 years old.

But more visible with Rochelle is the symbol of her recovery — Stella, her 6-year-old therapy dog.

“She’s my baby,” Rochelle said, smiling.

Stella, a border collie and German shepherd mix, was acquired through the Prison Pet Partnership Program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy. Inmates board, groom and train dogs taken from animal rescue organizations to become therapy and service pets. Dogs are trained for anywhere between a few weeks to a year. One out of every 15 to 20 dogs are selected to become service or therapy dogs. The rest are made available to the public for adoption.

Dogs such as Stella become therapy dogs if they don’t qualify to become a service dog for those with physical disabilities, said Mollyrose Sommer, program assistant at the Prison Pet Partnership Program. If a dog can’t retrieve items or perform the duties required of a service dog, the program evaluates a dog’s personality to see if it can become a therapy dog. It then works to match the personality of the dog and a client.

“Dogs have a natural ability to connect with people,” Sommer said. “Matching that personality helps develop the relationship that they form.”

Rochelle was on a waiting list for three years during high school for a Prison Pet therapy dog. Her mother, Jennifer Winchester, said that by the time Rochelle received Stella before her senior year of high school, she was mostly recovered from her self-damaging habits, but Stella still offered much-needed emotional healing.

“One of the biggest things was giving Kayla something that needed her, giving her that first sense of belonging,” Winchester said. “Stella made her feel safe. They’re just like soul mates.”

Stella is trained to go for help or stay close to Rochelle in the event of a panic attack or a dangerous change in mood.

“She can tell if I’m panicky or anxious,” Rochelle said, adding that Stella sits in her lap or follows her around until she feels better. “She’s just really supportive.”

Stella even gives hugs, Rochelle added, by putting her head under her arm.

During her senior year at Renaissance High School, Stella was one of the most popular faces in school, following Rochelle around and laying on the quilt made for her by Purdy inmates.

“She knew everybody,” Rochelle said. “She loved school.”

Stella came into Rochelle’s life at a time when her greatest problems were behind her, Winchester said. She stopped cutting herself and her problems with eating waned. Consequently, Stella has never had to rescue Rochelle from an emergency, but she is a sign of a brighter future ahead for Rochelle.

In the past few years, Rochelle went from being two years behind in school to graduating high school on time with 13 college credits in 2009. She was recently promoted to manager of Steel City Café on Sixth Street in Bremerton, where she works to save money to go to college. She hopes to attend Olympic College starting this fall or next spring to study early childhood education and work in a preschool — and ultimately earn a degree in special education.

Rochelle has been laughing and enjoying life for the first time in the past couple years, Winchester said, noting that her progress is nothing short of a miracle.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” she said. “It gives you a whole lot of faith in the human spirit.”

Rochelle said she never thought of having a career, getting married or raising kids until recently. But now she knows it’s possible.

“When I was younger, I didn’t see a future at all,” she said. “I didn’t see how it could get better, but it does.”

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