I shared the following volunteer story with Leah Oviedo on her new blog, Up To You Project, dedicated to encouraging community involvement on a local and global scale.
As I wrote it, I thought about what I have learned in recent months about sociopaths and other pathological liars and delusional individuals who get away with the most base crimes across the nation, but rarely, if ever, are prosecuted.
I’m talking about the child molesters, child abusers, rapists, spouse abusers and con artists who I believe are behind the creation and “nurturing” of the majority of petty thieves, drug dealers and addicts that end up in our system.
Here’s a not-so-startling statistic:
“A reported 85 to 90 percent of women who are either currently incarcerated or under the control of the justice system in the United States have a history of domestic and sexual abuse. Risk factors contributing to women’s criminal behavior include substance abuse, mental illness, and spousal abuse.” (Center for American Progress – The Top 5 Facts About Women in Our Justice System)
Most of the people I encountered during my volunteer experience described below simply needed someone to give them hope that there was still good in this world. They needed a little push, a little motivation and incentive to change.
Those who were clearly criminal and evil by nature, I gladly watched return to their cells. There is no changing a sociopathic mind.
My Volunteer Story and What I Learned
In 2004 when I was a graduate student attending Regis University in Denver, CO, I joined AmeriCorps, the domestic-based equivalent of the Peace Corps. The organization I chose was Community Educational Outreach (CEO), a non-profit that outreaches to the at-risk and in-need community members providing free GED, ABE, Life Skills and other valuable classes and training. I took on the volunteer assignment with only one expectation: to help someone pass the GED. I had no idea that I would be gifted with much, much more.
The CEO outreach partner where I chose to begin volunteering was located in a community corrections facility which housed male and female offenders out on probation/parole transitioning back into the community. The program was created due to over-crowding and a need to get these folks out of the “encaged” mindset and into one of independent thinking and doing. Although the facility was run by security guards and other correctional professionals, when the offenders walked into the CEO classrooms, they became students. They were no longer referred to as inmates.
Most of the young people (those under 30) were clearly high-strung and not very trusting of me. Most couldn’t understand why I would wish to help them for nothing. Even after explaining to them that I just wanted to help them, they couldn’t “get it.” I then started answering them with, “Well, if you continue to fail, all of society continues to fail. I want to be a part of a successful community and helping you is a step toward belonging to a healthier community.”
This approach seemed to work. I guess in their thinking, there had to be something in it for me because, more than likely, they were acted upon their entire lives by people who wanted something from them, otherwise they had no value.
There was something in it for me but that “something” was difficult to describe to my students:
- I helped men who had never had a proper job in their lives fill out applications and compose their first resumes.
- I got to see a woman who had lost most of her teeth to meth addiction, smile proudly for the first time in many years after we found her a dentist who was willing to give her new teeth pro bono.
- I saw the simple joy in the eyes of many after passing the GED on their first or second attempt.
- I got to see that there is hope and that rehabilitation and cognitive therapy and learning programs can help some of the forgotten and thrown away in our society.
- I also became very aware that many can’t be helped. Many need the correction system because they can never change their mindset.
But I was thankful that I could be a part of a program and project that helped those who desperately wanted to be helped. Regardless of a person’s past or upbringing, they are human and deserve our empathy and trust, at least until they prove, one way or another, that they don’t deserve it.
Note: Although I began this experience as a volunteer, within weeks of helping I was offered a part-time job but continued working unpaid on Sundays.
(image source: http://pinterest.com/pin/351912440683909/)