Why I'm Glad My Sense of Duty Led Me to Prison

prisonGrowing up with a social worker for a mom, the notion of helping people was a part of everyday life. She was always working on some program or initiative to help disadvantaged women and children. I remember one Mother's Day when I was around 7 years old, she and a couple of other people organized a small gathering outside a women's prison to protest the fact that incarcerated moms couldn't see their children. I was standing there with a homemade sign as reporters covered the scene. Those kinds of memories stick with you and impact the rest of your life. Little did I know at the time, I would find myself in a prison once again years later.

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As I struck out on my own, I kept that sense of duty. I volunteered for various community service projects during college, like food and clothing drives, and serving meals at a church kitchen. But it wasn't until I signed on to be GED teacher at a maximum security men's prison that I really understood the difference one person could make.

Here were men who had made terrible, often tragic mistakes in their lives, but they desperately hoped it would not define them. More so than giving them an understanding of the rules of grammar or basic math, my presence there provided something even more important. Compassion. I wasn't there to judge them for their crime. In fact, one of the rules was that we could not ask them about what they had done to land them behind bars. The relationship was simple -- teacher/student. We talked about the lives they planned to restart once they got out. And for these hopeful men, getting a GED was the first step. That didn't come without sacrifice. They would use their one hour of free-time to come to class sessions. So needless to say, I felt a responsibility to do the best job I could. I wanted a future for them as much as they did.

To this day, that was one of the best experiences I've ever had. I learned so much about the human spirit and how much just an hour three days a week could mean. I have no idea how they are all doing today. But I pray it was the start of an amazing next chapter for them. It certainly was for me.

What volunteer project has had a profound impact on you?

 

Image via -JvL-/Flickr

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