“I’m not good enough to wash a dog.” That is an odd statement for a job interview, but that is how Jenny McDaniel felt when she applied as a dog washer at Your Dog’s Best Friends in Alexandria ten years ago.
Jenny was pulled out of school in the third grade to avoid embarrassing her teacher, a married father of two, who had molested her. Unable to read or write, she grew up envying people who leisurely read newspapers and sipped coffee at outdoor cafes.
Another molester in his early thirties, who pronounced himself her boyfriend, offered her heroin when she was 13 years old. Jenny was immediately hooked. Finally, she had respite from her short life of abuse, pain, neglect and molestation. For the next 27 years she stole and lied – anything for a heroin fix and its glorious, numbing escape.
She was 18 when she was first sent to jail for stealing a box of crayons for her young son. Sharing a cell with a woman serving five life sentences for five murders, Jenny thought her life was over.
For the next 22 years, Jenny was in and out of jail, unsuccessfully trying to stay clean. Finally, when she was 40 years old, she kicked her addiction, earned her GED, trained as a dog groomer, and left Baltimore and her 27-year heroin habit for good.
Jenny moved to Alexandria to start anew. Paul Haire, the owner of Your Dog’s Best Friends, hired Jenny after she called him to thank him for the interview. Jenny’s first client was a Yorkshire Terrier who belonged to a Community Lodgings staff member. Although Paul comped the clipping, Jenny received a $40 tip. That tip was a turning point for her, and gave her the confidence to know the she could succeed in a life without drugs.
Jenny’s prison background made it hard for her to find housing. Paul told her about Community Lodgings’ transitional housing program, and Jenny was ecstatic when she applied and was accepted. After sharing an apartment briefly, she moved into her own a one-bedroom unit.
Finally, she was stable. She dreamed of owning her own home. With the money she saved by living in Community Lodgings’ transitional housing apartment, she bought a lovely three-bedroom brick home in Alexandria in September of 2011. Jenny has upgraded it with gleaming new floors, a new kitchen and new appliances.
She still wants to pinch herself when she wakes up, she says.
“Community Lodgings gave me a roof over my head,” she said, praising its programs. “The after school and mentor program is everything. If I would have had an after school mentor program [when I was a kid] my life would have gone in a whole different direction. It makes all the difference in the world.”
“I just think it’s so important what you guys do,” she continued. “It’s breaking the chain.”
A few months ago, Jenny returned to the Baltimore prison where she had spent so many years. The correctional officers hugged her and cried, she said, thinking that she was dead. Jenny recognized herself in the hardened “girls in their jumpsuits” and told them her story, adding, “You don’t have to live like that. There’s a better way.”
Everyone was in tears by the time Jenny finished. The inmates hugged her and took her cell number. “It was really cool,” Jenny said. She plans to return.
Recently Jenny discovered she has macular degeneration and will eventually go blind. Still, she works a few hours a week at Your Dog’s Best Friend, gives keynote speeches on prison reform, and spends time with her granddaughter. It’s a bad joke, she said, that she finally learned to read and soon she can’t. Still, she takes it one day at a time. “It is what it is,” she mused. “It’s all worth it. It wasn’t for nothing. I have no regrets.”