Waiting for a Sign: Deaf Dog Finds Love After Rejection
04/25/2011 AT 05:00 PM EDT
In desperation, Martin turned to a Missouri prison program, the privately financed Puppies for Parole, that pairs inmates with abandoned or abused rescue animals. The inmates train the animals in the hopes of making them adoptable, but this was the first time the inmates had worked with a deaf animal. No big deal. Through American Sign Language, the dog learned basic commands – sit, stay, lay down – and charmed convicts who set about to find it a proper home.
"He's an adorable, people-loving, 1-year-old crystal-blue-eyed-dachshund," wrote inmate/trainers Joseph Denti and Davod Manwarren, who both are serving time for murder. "At the very least we believe he would bring untold joy to a group of children or child through the unending love of an animal that shares a common bond." Together with group of 40 inmates, they even offered to pay the $75 shelter adoption fee.
When the letter reached Barbara Garrison, superintendent of the Missouri School for the Deaf, the decision to adopt was "a no-brainer," she says. She intended only to expand her brood of four other hearing dachshunds at her campus residence. But after sharing her new pet's saved-from-death story with students, who named him Sparky, the students' jaws dropped, and a teaching moment took hold.
"Deaf kids can feel like they've been tossed aside, too," says Stephanie Logan, of The L.E.A.D. Institute, a statewide deaf advocacy organization in Missouri. Bethany Peterson, the school's director of student life, says through an interpreter: "Sparky is like a reflection of them. He inspires our kids to think of what they can do, not what they can't do."
Now, with that unique bond intact, the 88 students at the K-12 school clamor after class for Sparky to sit in their laps and beg for permission to let him stay in their rooms. He's even challenging the Eagle – the school's symbol since 1851 – and may soon take over as unofficial mascot.
"He understands us," says Cheyenne Dickerson, 12, through an interpreter. Michael Miller, 18, says Sparky's more than an inspiration – he's also a new friend. "Because he can't hear and I can't hear," Miller says, smiling, "he's just like us."
Read more about Sparky in this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.