Empowering Inmates Through Literacy
When I began with Free To Succeed, I didn’t know what prison life was like and I didn’t enter San Quentin with any preconceived notions. My heartfelt intention was to let those I would encounter know that they are not forgotten, and that they each have intrinsic value no matter their crime. As important as our tutoring is to the educational development of these inmates, the encouragement and inspiration we impart is vital to their lives, and ours. The relationships that are developed over time change our students, and change us. Inmates see that we care about them as we faithfully enter every week, month after month, year after year. They come to understand that we believe in their abilities and strengths to persevere in both their educational pursuits and their futures. That combination is a winning formula for building personal esteem, self-worth, and happiness. There is mutual respect and appreciation for one another in this classroom. Over the last eight years, the joy I have found in working with so many different personalities has been a gift. I would encourage everyone to move out of one’s comfort zone – take a chance and cross a threshold that is unknown. In his book “Just Mercy”, the author Bryan Stevenson quotes his grandmother saying to him, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close”.
I feel very fortunate to live close to an “urban prison” and have the opportunity to continuously develop those special connections with both our students and the many volunteers that help out in our program. We are a homeroom where folks can laugh, learn, and be listened to…that special place called Free To Succeed.
When I signed on with Free To Succeed I figured I would do it for 6 months or so. Now 18 years later, I still love it. Imagine. Like many of our students, I work all day, then voluntarily go to Free To Succeed. Often, before I go in, I’m tired. Coming out, inevitably, I’m refreshed and invigorated. It really is amazing. Weekends, I play tennis with a bunch of friends. Recently, I challenged Roger Federer, but so far he’s ignoring all my emails. I’m here, ready to play – so it’s not me – it’s gotta’ be him, right?
I work internationally in multi-media. My work includes film productions, multimedia projects, corporate showroom presentations, advertising and marketing.
As a high school student, I didn’t do well in Math, so I understand people who have difficulty with it. Today, I’m very happy to help our students learn basic Math. Working with people at FTS gives me great pleasure and wonderful learning experiences.
I also speak Japanese pretty well. (That’s modesty. Noy grew up in Japan and is fluent).
Having been a college and high school teacher for some 40 years, I have come to believe that often teachers learn more from students than the other way around. This has been my volunteer experience at San Quentin. There, helping prison clients in a variety of tasks, from college essay writing to parole statements, from basic reading to perhaps just listening to their difficulties with a subject, has proved challenging as well as offering huge satisfaction. In the two years I have been working with Free to Succeed, I have met many men of high intellect as well as those behind academically. Their struggles to improve their lives are a lesson in perseverance. They express such gratitude and respect for my efforts to help, that I leave the study hall reinvigorated and in many ways, re-educated.
After working for 30 years in the financial industry, I’ve long volunteered in Marin County in various worthwhile activities such as Whistlestop Senior Center and St. Vincent De Paul Kitchen. San Quentin has been a unique, and the most rewarding, experience in that I work with people making hopeful transitions, those who are struggling to redeem past mistakes and transform the future. What has seemed amazing to me is what a fine line separates the tensions and motivations of those who have ended up in prison and those of us on the outside. The Free to Succeed program is a fascinating way to understand more about the society we live in.
The men in the prison population whom we serve work hard to improve their English language and math skills. It is gratifying to see their tangible progress as reflected in their written work and in the comments of their teachers in various programs. But there is nothing more rewarding than witnessing the increase in their confidence and in their belief that they are, and can be, more than their present circumstances dictate.
Being a volunteer with Free to Succeed has been a truly wonderful experience. The men we work with are sincere in their endeavors and honestly grateful for any support we can offer. This experience is one of the highlights of my week.
I have worked with Free to Succeed for about five years now. I worked as a teacher and administrator for the Solano County (3 years) and Marin County (23 years) Superintendents for 26 years, and as a resource specialist at Drake High School in the Tamalpais Union High School District for 10 years. When I retired I heard about Free to Succeed from my neighbor and long-time volunteer, Joe Spinelli. It is thrilling to see the men we work with get excited about learning at whatever level they are, from beginning readers to GED preparation to college course work. I think seeing one student, Mike S., persevere on the math section of the GED until he passed on the sixth try was one of the moments that made me feel that we are helping people accomplish things they thought they never could. And all of us volunteers can take credit for Michael L. going from non-reader to reading at a mid-elementary level; he now is learning not just to read, but to learn about the world from the books he can now access. Ask him about how Braille was invented or how the Wright Brothers conquered the dilemma of how to fly, and you will hear the excitement in his answer, because he learned it from reading it himself, thanks to years of patience by many Free to Succeed volunteers.
I am in my third year of volunteering with Free To Succeed. I am 83 years of age, a semi-retired architect, enjoy singing, woodworking and the natural world, and I am a meditator. I have found volunteering with Free To Succeed to be rewarding and have the hope that I have made a difference in the lives of the men I have worked with.
I never thought I’d be volunteering at San Quentin when I retired as an elementary school reading specialist. But after the first evening with Free To Succeed, I was hooked. I am constantly inspired by the men’s motivation to better their lives and am moved by their expressions of gratitude. A student who recently wrote me, “Thank you for coming. I want to learn to read.” says it all.
While the Free to Succeed program is about empowering inmates by strengthening proficiency in reading and writing skills, I’ve noticed that another benefit is inevitable–the satisfaction that comes from connecting authentically with another human being regardless of what appears to be wide differences in terms of backgrounds and life experiences. Those differences become inconsequential when two semi strangers sit down to tackle a homework assignment and end up laughing about life, philosophy, and whatever else naturally develops.. And the homework assignment still gets done! To me, the true value of this work is the relationships and interactions that occur when life situations become less important than authenticity.