All writing is a form of prayer - John Keats

Sunday, April 24, 2016

It wasn't a worship service, but God was present!

Somehow it felt like worship.  There was no sermon.  There were no prayers.  Religion wasn’t the topic for the day.  Perhaps it’s just that God was there.

Former HFP Board Chairman Dan Rooks and I were in prison yesterday.  We made the long drive to Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, at the request of the local chapter of the National Lifers of America.  We’ve done this presentation quite often now, and each time it’s a pleasurable experience.

I talk about HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, what we try to do for prisoners and also what we absolutely cannot do. 

Dan, a clinical psychologist, takes the podium for the second half of our dog and pony show with an actual heavy-duty lecture on anger management.

Now one would suspect that putting together nearly 100 prisoners on a Saturday afternoon, sitting on hard bleachers in a noisy gymnasium, there might be a problem keeping the attention and the interest of the audience.  Some guys might be falling asleep.  Others might be poking each other and giggling.  Au contraire!

There’s a sea of faces out there, most of them black, many of them taking notes.  I’m well aware that only 12% of these people ever get a visit.  I’m well aware that, after 10 years or so, family and friends seem to drift away and prisoners have little outside support.  So I do my best to cover subjects that are of interest to them as one of their friends.  I try to explain how and where we can help.  But most of all I try to convey the message that, even though we cannot solve every problem, we care.  We do this because we care.  And I go beyond that, by challenging them.  I tell that that HFP bets on the fact that, if we’re kind to them, they’ll be kind to another prisoner. They’ll be kind to staff members.  And when they get out, they’ll be a kinder citizen.

Then Dan takes the same ball and runs with it, insisting that kindness feeds on itself.  One can hear a pin drop.  Prisoners are feverishly taking notes, as he gives them step-by-step suggestions on why angry outbursts occur and how to avoid them.

We get standing ovations.

The Lifers Chapter 1008 presents us with Humanitarian Awards for our “thoughtfulness,” and for “the uplifting of humanity!”

It wasn’t yet Sunday.  It wasn’t a worship service.  But somehow Dan and I felt a divine presence.  No awards were necessary.  We were doing what we love.  And God was there!

Friday, April 22, 2016

From rags to riches---HFP at work!

Some people think that all we do at HFP is put out fires.  Honestly, we do that quite a bit.  But something happened this week that proves that we are also proactive.  More than 1,000 pounds of yarn were delivered to prisons.  And that wasn’t the first time.  We’ve been doing it for years.

Here’s the story.  A member of the HFP Board of Directors, Judy VanderArk, has friends who know people who operate a carpet manufacturing company.  These names may not be revealed.

Anyway, this carpet company is willing to give away the unused spools of yarn that go into the creation of beautiful carpeting.  Needless to say, this is expensive, high quality yarn.  Judy has been on our Board for a long time, and she knows that several of the prisons in Michigan have hobby-craft programs that involve knitting and crocheting.  So she made work of asking these prison program coordinators if they would like free yarn.  The response was positive, and so was her reaction. 

With husband Pete, Judy has organized efforts of a group of volunteers to procure yarn from the company, and it’s no easy task!  Some of the unused spools are even in dumpsters already.  Our volunteers must find the spools, count them, weigh them and bag them.  It’s hard work and it’s time-consuming.  But rewarding!  This week’s venture resulted in the pick-up of approximately 1,150 pounds of yarn.  Retail value?  Certainly thousands of dollars!

That’s not the end of the project for Judy and Pete.  He heads north with one of their vehicles, dropping off bags and bags of yarn at Pugsley Correctional Facility in northern lower Michigan, and Brooks CF in Muskegon.  Meanwhile, Judy heads south, delivering a major load to Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson.  Hundreds of miles of driving!

What happens with this yarn?  Well, prisoners put it to good use with their knitting needles and crochet hooks.  Their finished products go to various facilities, including a homeless veterans’ facility, a womens' shelter, a cancer clinic, and elementary schools in low-income areas. 

It’s a winning situation in so many ways!
          The company is pleased---unused yarn is put to good use!
          HFP is pleased---we’re able to do something tangible for inmates!
          The MDOC is pleased---they don’t have to spend money on yarn!
          Program coordinators are pleased---they have beautiful materials!
          Inmates are happy---they can make a major contribution to society!
          Recipients are excited---their gifts come from people behind bars who care!

We’ve been doing this exciting work for many years, sometimes involving several more of our Board Members and volunteers. No fanfare. No major announcements.

A tip of the HFP hat to ALL who make this possible!

It’s just one more way that we touch lives…one at a time.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Some thoughts on our personal GPS

My daily calendar of funny sayings joked the other day about a bridge engineer who, on the stand in a court room, was unable to subtract two simple numbers because he didn’t have his calculator with him.

I think about my father’s neighborhood grocery store back in the 1940s.  There was no electricity to the checkout counter, because it wasn’t needed.  We used a hand-operated adding machine to tally up the prices.  And then when the customer paid, we had a hand-crank cash register.  It was up to the cashier to figure out how much change to return to the customer.

The next time you make a purchase in any kind of a store I’m sure you’ll notice that the cashier cannot figure out how much money to give back until he/she looks at the machine.  If the total isn’t there electronically, the cashier is stumped.

Marcia and I just returned from a trip to Alabama.  We didn’t need a road map, like in the olden days.  My little I-Phone gave us instructions all the way there.  A couple times I didn’t pay attention, but the kind lady in the telephone gently got me back on track.

Whether making change or driving on the highway, modern-day technology can give you all the answers.  Not much need to think or calculate any more.

I was thinking about that in the shower the other morning (that’s when I do the most serious thinking!), and concluded that we all have a divine GPS system.  The father/son team heading up the HFP operation is an excellent example of how it works. 

It took more than 60 years before I ended up in this full-time prison work.  A lot of twists and turns, curves and hills along the way.  I formed what is now known as HFP in 2001.

For Matt, it took about half that long, but the route was equally as circuitous.  Matt came aboard in 2013.

Had you asked either of us earlier in life, this goal was nowhere on the horizon. 

But the message from our divine GPS, when we finally got here, was equally as satisfying:  You have reached your destination!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Yes, indeed...EVERYBODY counts!

Best-selling novelist Michael Connolly is putting one of my favorite detectives on TV:  Harry Bosch.  I don’t agree with Harry when it comes to the death penalty, and I find his attitude toward criminal defense attorneys distasteful, but I love his dogged determination to solve cases!  I especially like his feelings re the murders of people who don’t rank very high socially.  His slogan:  Everybody counts or nobody counts!

That slogan came to mind this week, as I was working on some copy for a book I’m trying to write.  In a chapter dealing with the work of HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, this very subject came up.

I cited two cases where, by all outward appearances, HFP failed.  Two prisoners who we worked so hard to help reach freedom dropped the ball after they got out.  One was immediately recaptured by the addiction demons that got him in trouble in the first place.  He died in a drunken stupor, frozen to death in the middle of a field one cold November day.  The second case was worse yet.  The former prisoner, claiming all along that he had been wrongly convicted, appeared to be a poster boy for HFP upon his release.  I brought him with me to public speaking engagements, got him started in business, found friends to surround him in church…while the whole time he was scamming us.  He was stealing stuff under our noses, committing burglaries by the dozens, and finally---after authorities caught up with him once again---took his own life while sitting in a county jail.  Both of these young men died at the age of 44.

Board members asked me if situations like these dimmed my vision, and my prompt and firm response was NO!

For those rare cases where we tried to do what was right, only to learn that evil triumphed once again, there are dozens and dozens of wonderful experiences.  When I held the door open for Gail when she walked out of prison, she said it made her feel like the “most important person in the world.”  When I welcomed Joe with open arms after serving 39 years behind bars, he said---with tears streaming down his face---HFP was like the Red Cross for us in there.  You were there for us when there was no one else!”

I have spoken to Grand Haven High School seniors in a class called PAY IT FORWARD on two different occasions.  In the first session, a student asked me if we would help anyone, regardless of creed or color, regardless of the seriousness of the crime.  Of course we will, and we do.  And in the second session, the teacher asked me just how we determine whether a prisoner is leveling with us.  I had to point out that sometimes we can’t.  That still doesn’t mean that the prisoner does not deserve humane treatment.  We must constantly remind our supporters that incarceration is the punishment.  Even the person guilty of the most heinous crime, even the most brilliant of con artists behind bars, still deserve proper medical care, edible food, and protection against cruelty and exploitation.

Harry Bosch refuses to admit that he’s a spiritual person.

Yet, his slogan is very Christian in nature.  Matt and I certainly buy into it, and try to practice it every day!

Everybody counts or nobody counts!