Monthly Archives: September 2012

Beauty Among Pain

A few weeks ago I watched a show about women who have babies while incarcerated.  This particular episode centered on a pilot program where inmates, based on their crimes and behavior have a chance to keep their babies with them in their cells and followed two women through their journey.  It was one of the most gut-wrenching things I have ever seen to the point where I had to avert my eyes to keep from crumbling.  As expected there was one happy ending and one devastating.
 I see a lot of pregnant women in the workshop I lead with inmates.  For most this is not their first pregnancy nor does the unborn baby have the same father as its siblings.  There is no joy in the mother’s eyes, no rubbing of the belly, no astonished look when the baby moves or kicks. The prison-issued uniform is the only set of maternity clothes they will wear.  
In the tv show, the audience is set-up to anticipate the ending of one woman’s story.  She has been incarerated for a violent crime and is taken to a hospital, in shackles, to deliver her baby.  She already knows that because of her crime, she will be unable to keep her baby with her in prison. She is unsure who the father is and won’t know until she can see what color his skin is.  
 She delivers her baby without much fanfare, noone clapping or cheering her on except for the female prison guard who has accompanied her (she had noone else in her life who had any interest in being there).  The baby boy is placed on her chest for a minute or two, his skin color still a bit murky, and taken away to be cleaned, measured and weighed while his mother is taken to her hospital room.
She is allowed 24 hours with him.  We see her bottle-feeding him, their eyes locked together in that way that mothers and their babies do. He is then  placed into the arms of an Amish woman whose family will foster him until his mother’s sentence is completed.   He is brought in for a visit a month later and she is very grateful to the family and seems resigned that they will, in fact, be the ones to raise him.  
Today in my class there was a woman whose baby is due in two weeks.  She prayed that he wouldn’t be delivered in the prison infirmary but in a nearby hospital.  Her fellow inmates soothed her as best they could and a woman in the front turned to her and askd, “Is it okay if I tell her,” (meaning me), “about his name?”  The pregnant woman nodded.
“She has an autistic son and he’s the one who picked out the name for the baby.”
One by one, the other women started to put their heads down to cry, one getting up to pass around a box of tissues.
“What’s his name going to be?” one asked.
“Christian.”  There were encouraging compliments on the choice.
” My son has never expressed any interest in the baby yet and said, ‘This is going to be a special baby.'”   
The mother doesn’t know how long her sentence will run, but the baby will be raised by her husband and undoubtedly loved by the brother who named him Christian.
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Pinch Me Please

Yesterday during training for my new job, I had a brief moment where I saw my new boss’s mouth moving and didn’t hear the words.  Instead, I heard my own voice in my head saying, “Am I really here?” Sitting there, across the table from her,  ranks up there with one of my happiest achievements.

Instead of going over donor lists and which temperamental board member to steer clear of, we talked about substance abuse, contraband, and the nuances of juvenile offenders.  In my 20 years of human service non-profit fundraising I was dismissed from similar trainings because they weren’t “job related.”  If I requested to have some involvement with the activities of the clients being served by my agencies, I would hear things like, “As long as it doesn’t interfere with your job.”  I hated having to justify why client connection would make me better, and much happier in my job.  (There was one exception to this where my passion for working with at-risk youth changed the course of my professional focus and I will forever be grateful for that opportunity.)

I have been clear in my resolve for several years that I wanted to work directly with underserved populations and actually be paid for it.  I knew that this meant an enormous pay cut, but I was willing to figure out a way to make it work.  My applications for these types of jobs weren’t taken seriously as hiring managers wouldn’t take the time to see that I had the right skills and experience to qualify for the jobs I wanted.  They didn’t believe me when I said that the pay cut would be fine, I would manage.  In the end, I always found myself having to take the same type of job I had always had, going through the motions, charming donors, justifying unmet goals all while collecting a fairly respectable paycheck.  After my third layoff in a row, I vowed NEVER to plan another gala, enter another donation into a database, or prepare an excel sheet for a board meeting that was always the same as every board meeting that came before it.  It wasn’t until I firmly slammed that door, that another one flung itself open.

It was through an informational interview that I ended up volunteering with female inmates.  I was told to write my own workshop description, trusted by the program director to get in front of a group of women incarcerated for various types of crimes.  Within a couple of weeks I felt as if I was born to do this work.  The women, in their required evaluations of my workshop apparently felt the same.

I have now found myself wanting to immerse myself in learning more about the criminal justice system, the good, the bad and the ugly.  Through some of my blog posts about my work I have attracted some of the most respected people in the field and have been invited to be a guest blogger for a man who is internationally known for his work with juvenile offenders.  In all of my years as a fundraiser, I was never asked to present at a conference or sit on a panel of professionals.  Yes, I had the perfect personality for the schmooze required for that profession, but perhaps my lack of passion for the work was more transparent than I realized.

I told my father that I had been hired to be a Life Skills instructor at 6 residential programs with youth and adults and how the challenge before me was more exciting than any other.  We made each other laugh when he said, “I guess it’s time to dust off that Ph.d you have”  (I have a B.S. in Journalism from the same university he went to).  He’s been relentless in his efforts over the past 20 years to have me attend local “networking events” hosted by our school, but when he finally said it again less than a month ago, I said “Dad, I don’t think the people who attend these things are working in the prison system.”  He finally got it.

I will be working directly with the staff at these residential programs, without a doubt the unsung heroes of this field.  They will help me navigate through the complicated world of offenders from the ages of 14 and up with patience and humor.  I will learn how to run workshops on anger management and self-esteem using the vast amount of curriculum that exists and by crafting my own.

I so wish that this had happened earlier in my life and not at 47, but I am proud that I have landed where I wanted to be by not compromising.  I’ve become the poster child for telling my peers that this can REALLY happen if they want it enough, the whole “following your bliss” thing.  Yes, the risks are huge and scary, in my case financially terrifying.  Some weeks my husband and I find ourselves with $25 to last a week and our credit card debt is astounding.  Each month we have to scramble to pay our rent, but in the end, we miraculously manage.  All that being said, I’ve landed in my dream with both feet on the ground.  Somebody pinch me.