Linda Valentino has a tough exterior, but on the inside she shines through her love of animals.
As deputy warden at Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown, Valentino carries herself with confidence. She is all business at the prison, doing a job she has enjoyed for 29 years.
"I started with the Department of Corrections by accident," Valentino said. "I was out of work and living in Pittsburgh. I came to Delaware with some friends and really liked it, so I put in a state application and was hired as a corrections officer."
She graduated at the top of her class from the correctional officer training and she was stationed at a women's facility that used to be in Claymont. After a few years there, she put in for a transfer to the court and transportation detail. Soon an opportunity to teach other corrections officers at the training academy presented itself, and she jumped on it.
"I taught for 15 years," Valentino said. "I got to learn all about the department and meet people. I was able to network across the country."
Her work as a teacher was noticed by federal government officials who hired her as a contractual teacher, offering her opportunities to teach nationwide. She recently returned from teaching such a class in Colorado.
Soon Valentino was ready for a new challenge, so she began looking for advancement opportunities. She found one that would also take her closer to the beach: she returned to Sussex County as regional coordinator for the training academy.
"The position got me some more experience inside a facility," Valentino said. "Shortly after that I put in for major and a year later I was promoted to deputy warden."
She says her biggest accomplishment since being promoted has been to start the Paws for a Cause program. This new program in Georgetown matches inmates with dogs from the SPCA. The inmates help train the dogs so they can be adopted outside the prison.
"We are in our sixth week and it is working out really well for everyone involved," Valentino said. "I am hoping to add two more dogs to the program soon."
She said her success in the prison system is owed mostly to luck and opportunities.
"I am finally at a level where I can make things happen," said Valentino, who will turn 51 this month. "And, I am working with a great partner in our warden G.R. Johnson. We work really well together and are doing great things here in Georgetown."
Together Valentino and Johnson helped start the Lifers group, which is made up of inmates serving life sentences. The men work together to make items they can sell to benefit prison programs. One of the programs the group has donated to is the Paws program, Valentino said.
"Paws was a dream of mine before becoming deputy warden," Valentino said. "I've always loved dogs, and I knew this would be a great program here."
Orphaned from an early age
One could say Valentino has a lot in common with the foster dogs that are now cared for at SCI. Many of them had a home, but lost it for one reason or another.
As a 10-month-old child, Valentino's mother died of a brain aneurysm. Valentino doesn't remember her.
Then when she was 5, her father, who had heart problems, died on the operating table. On his deathbed, he married his private-duty nurse with the expectation she would then care for his two daughters.
Following his death, the woman dropped Valentino and her sister off at their aunt's house for the weekend. She never returned.
"Growing up my sister and I had a boxer that we loved, but since my aunt rented her home, we couldn't take the dog with us," Valentino said. "I think that was just so traumatic for us. At the time, people didn't seem to understand how important a dog can be."
She said it was hard losing her parents, but it was just as hard losing the treasured family pet.
"We were orphans, so it was a rough childhood," Valentino said. "It might have been even harder for my older sister, because she took on the mothering role. We were really close - she was my role model."
Valentino's aunt wasn't expecting to be saddled with two young children. She had already raised two children, who were grown and out of the house when the Valentino sisters arrived on her doorstep.
"She was a small woman, but she was very tough," Valentino said. "They were older, so they weren't really involved in many of our school activities."
Valentino learned to take care of herself. She worked hard in school and loved playing softball. But, the memory of her father never faded.
"People always ask you about your parents, so I was always reminded that I was an orphan," Valentino said. "It made me very independent."
Leaving her home in Pittsburgh to attend college at Clarion University was easy for Valentino. She embraced the independence and fun of college life, easily making friends on the college softball team.
Majoring in speech communication and theater, Valentino excelled in her studies. In the summers, she returned home to work as Kenny the Kangaroo, the mascot for Kennywood, a theme park near Pittsburgh.
"It was a cool job," said Valentino. "I got to play all day, shake hands with people - it was great."
Following friends to her future
The summer after college graduation, Valentino did not see many job opportunities on the horizon. Several of her college friends were heading to the beach to relax for a week, so she tagged along.
The friends headed to Rehoboth Beach, where Valentino found her love of the ocean, beach and all things resort.
Later two of the friends moved to Delaware to work and invited Valentino to join them.
"One of my friends told me I should fill out a state application, so I did," Valentino said.
Once hired by the Department of Corrections, Valentino packed up her small Toyota, bid her sister and aunt adieu and headed for Delaware.
"My aunt didn't like it at first," Valentino said. "It was hard on her for me to go so far away."
During training academy, fellow recruits teased Valentino, who was basically living out of her Toyota while she crashed on a friend's couch.
"I wasn't sure I would like it," Valentino said of the corrections work. "I figured I would come down and try it, and if it didn't work out, I could go back to Pittsburgh."
Valentino never left.
"I never anticipated this would turn into my career," Valentino said. "It's given me so many great opportunities. I see myself doing it as long as I love coming to work each day."
Loves of her life
When she isn't at the prison, Valentino is either teaching a night class at Delaware Technical Community College or playing on an adult softball team.
Her love of animals has stayed with her since her childhood.
"Growing up as orphans, my sister and I always dreamed of having a dog," Valentino said. "We would bring home strays and come up with schemes to try and keep them, but it never worked."
Now Valentino and her sister each have four dogs.
Valentino's friends are also dog fanatics; some of them started Greyhounds at the Beach, an annual event that brings hundreds of rescued racing dogs to Dewey and Rehoboth beaches.
"I spend most of my time at home outside Rehoboth with my dogs, but I also like taking them to the beach," Valentino said.
Roody, a rat terrier; Marty, a bull terrier; Beau, a Besinge African barkless; and Zora, a greyhound, are the focus of Valentino's life.
"I have been very fortunate to have all these opportunities and to be able to live a life I dreamed of for so many years," Valentino said.