(A mother and son help clean up along the river on “Family Volunteer Day,” courtesy of ServeRhodeIsland.com)
“What if I don’t really like what I take on?” “What if they expect more from me than I’m willing to do?” “I don’t know if I want to get involved—I may get in over my head.”
concerns that haunt those who even consider volunteering their service. But, because we’re in an era of economic hardship, these concerns are ill-founded, and folks with imagination can flex their creative muscles, design their own way of contributing, and enter the arena of public service.
How do I know? I volunteer at a women’s prison. I call my program “Word Warriors: Empowering Women Through Effective Writing.” I designed the program, wrote the stories I use, and recently completed my first 10-week session. My program is a work in progress and I intend to expand it, as I continue.
How did I get started in this? I love teaching and discovered (since my retirement 10 years ago and a second career) that nothing else provided me the joy teaching did. With that in mind, I began to consider where I might volunteer-teach. I had initial experience teaching basic skills to women prisoners in North Carolina three years ago (again, as a volunteer). This time I determined to create a program in Rhode Island.
I began asking around as to who could give me the OK for my prison program. I literally knocked on the door of the programs director, pitched my idea to him, and submitted sample lesson plans, detailing the scope of my proposal. The result is that I teach 19 women to write, using stories that share a theme of overcoming adversity. My topics include: abuse (familial/domestic), divorce, single-parenting, addiction, health crises, poor choices and/or bad relationships. All reflect hope and many (despite the tenor) exude humor, if sometimes of the gallows variety. In my 3-decade career, I discovered teaching is more effective with a healthy dollop of humor.
In the beginning, it didn’t look promising. The physical challenges of the system threw me: I came in, presented my driver’s license for ID, at the front desk (an officer monitors from behind a bullet-proof window), and awaited clearance. I was then issued a pass. No one cheerily welcomed me, for the mood at the entry port is dead serious. And no one ever enjoined me to “Have a good day!”
From that point, cradling a mound of my materials, I approached the security device that often disqualified me for non-compliance (on my first visit, I learned underwire bras are disallowed). Then. too, buckles of any order, and even the prison-issued ID sent the sensor singing. One particularly funny scene saw me, hopping about on one foot, as I removed my boots, one at a time (they had buckles). No chair was provided to this 64-year-old. On future occasions, I wore simple flats and stripped off my watch and ID before passing through the security device.
Another hurdle was: early on, my population kept shifting, as“ the word” among inmates spread, and each session produced a new roster of women, meaning I lacked the momentum a teacher achieves when regularity reigns. Some days I’d come home, saying: “Why am I doing this?” But I kept at it, and slowly our class of stalwarts evolved, the 19 women who elected to stay the course.
What was my greatest unexpected reward? My women’s interaction with me. Whereas in the beginning, they eyed me cautiously, we began a respectful relationship. Each week, after the wing officer called: “Word Warriors, report to class,” they’d come in, greeting me, with “Hi Colleen! How was your week?” They were genuinely happy to see me and tracked my arrival from their perch on the open-air porches (calling out is forbidden).
We laughed often and enjoyed the occasions of wit, and I picked up prison jargon along the way: When I wondered if one woman’s reference to sha-na-na’s on an essay was the 1970’s music group, they exploded in mirth, explaining sha-na-na’s (pronounced sha-nay-nay’s) are the fabric slip-on “shoes” they wear. These women, for the most part, are smart and articulate: they kept up with my rat-a-tat presentation as I sought to compact diverse topics into each week’s 2-hour session.
In conclusion, I love my volunteer “job,” for it surpassed all expectations. But, I am merely one; there are thousands, everywhere, trying to make a difference. Hopefully, our army will continue to grow. The field is open, defined ultimately by those who recognize a need and determine to fill it.
All one needs do is step up to the plate and sign on. The rewards are truly amazing.
PS…A friend in Massachusetts tried to volunteer but the particular organization she aligned with demanded so much in the way of commitment, she gave up (not possible to square with her job demands). Biddy suggests creating your own way to give and pitching the idea to those in charge (as I did). In this way, YOU tailor your volunteer effort to what you can do (you’re not married to some boilerplate regimen.)
PPS…Prisons need former librarians, coaches, physical education trainers, etc. as volunteers. If you think you’d be interested, please contact prison officials (or Biddy)…And just think: You get to teach in a pure environment devoid of cell phones, students’ texting, other distractions. To the contrary, students are receptive and appreciative.
Now, seriously, when was the last time you enjoyed that teaching environment?
(Click on link below to hear Colleen Kelly Mellor read her essay, “Helping Incarcerated Women,” December 22, 2010, on WRNI, public radio, Providence, RI… Click on first arrow in the bar)