The inspiration for Cabell Youell came years ago with an unusual proposition.
As an attorney with experience at law firms in Richmond and Roanoke, Youell was familiar with civil litigation and also with programs that helped prisoners work through their legal problems.
Through a law school clinic at Washington & Lee University, she had helped inmates at a federal women’s prison.
When she was presented with the idea of combining a service dog program with a therapeutic project at a prison, the idea hit home.
“I think that was kind of the link – the clinic work that I did in law school,” Youell said.
Now the head of Saint Francis Service Dogs in Roanoke, Youell was honored May 7 as Virginia Lawyers Weekly’s “Influential Woman of the Year.”
As a law student at W&L in the 1990s, Youell counseled the women inmates at the Alderson federal prison camp in West Virginia. She helped with custody, divorce and sentence reduction issues. Sometimes, she would make a call to alert a criminal lawyer about pending matters.
Youell won a law school award for her work with the prisoners.
She went on to practice commercial law, first at Williams Mullen in Richmond and then, after she married, at the Roanoke firm then known as Flippin Densmore. That firm later became part of LeClair Ryan.
She found her canine calling when she volunteered to help launch a new project in 2002 that allowed state inmates to train puppies for the service dog program. The Prison Pup Program, as it is called, is a partnership between Saint Francis and the state prison system.
In the program, select prisoners help train the puppies who will eventually become helpers for physically and emotionally disabled adults and children. Once trained, the dogs help their owners with the tasks of everyday life.
“For me, it was a marriage of values, creating an opportunity for worth among inmates while creating an opportunity for independence for people with disabilities. It was, and is, deeply compelling to me,” Youell said.
The volunteer work led Youell to quit law practice and take the position of executive director of Saint Francis Service Dogs in 2003.
Now, she says, “My days are intensely varied.” The job involves lots of strategic, long-term planning, but Youell says she has to be available for “unpredictable” tactical decisions as well.
Youell oversees a paid staff of 12, but there are many volunteers on the staff, all dedicated to working with the dogs and the people they will serve.
“I don’t have problems with motivation that a lot of bosses have. Everybody’s very committed to what we do,” Youell said.
The program places 10-15 dogs each year, mostly Labradors and golden retrievers. Since its founding in 1996, it has placed more than 100 dogs.
At any given time, there are 40-50 dogs in training, ranging from eight weeks to two years in age.
It takes two years to train a dog, and costs as much as $25,000 per dog, with veterinary care, housing, transportation and professional training. Insurance doesn’t pay for service dogs, and there are no government funding streams. Fund raising is a big part of the Saint Francis operation.
A capital campaign helped pay for a new modern facility in 2010.
“Saint Francis is a healthy organization in every sense of the word, and I take great joy in that,” Youell said.
“It is a very dynamic place with a strong commitment to people with disabilities. I feel very lucky to be a part of it,” she added.
Youell laughs about having a job working with puppies, but she said the psychological benefits are real. Hearing a dog snoring in peaceful sleep helps put things in perspective, she says.
“If you’re having a bad day, it really is a stress reliever.”