This past Saturday night I met a room full of angels disguised as ordinary people. They looked and acted like ordinary people. They led ordinary lives. They came from Eau Claire and Augusta; from Winona and Tomah. Some came in wheel chairs and some carrying canes. Some were young but most had seen many summers. All of them had sacrificed to be there.
I met these angels in prison.
The occasion was the annual celebration of National Volunteer Week. I was privileged to be the keynote speaker for the evening. We were recognizing the contributions of 180 people who give their time and talent to the inmates at the Jackson Correctional Institute.
Many of the volunteers are part of the chapel services held at the prison. Most are of Christian faiths. Also represented are Jewish, Islamic, Pagan, Hindu and Native American traditions. The volunteers provide the religious services, studies and pastoral visits for inmates.
Other volunteers assist in Alcoholic Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and services to veterans. Most are over age 30 and many over age 55. A few volunteers have put in over 50 hours of service this past year. Some have been coming to the prison since it opened over ten years ago.
Two of the angels I met are the prison chaplains. These two men are remarkable in their commitment to bettering the lives of others. John Samuelson and Myron Olson have dedicated their lives to helping inmates learn to make wise choices and find the inner strength to change their lives.
No one can enter the prison and not be changed. Even if it is only a ten minute visit.
One of the volunteers came up to me after the event and shared how much she had been changed by her experience.
“These men have opened their hearts tonight and expressed their thanks to us,” she said. “But they have no idea how much they have given to us. To see their suffering and to know the troubles they have faced in their lives. I think ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ Being a part of this program is truly a blessing in my life.”
When I talked with the volunteers, it was their compassion that moved me. Their values and their lives were different from the inmates. But they accepted the inmates without condoning the actions that brought these men to prison. They helped inmates learn to arrive at better decisions and learn the skills to be successful outside the prison walls.
In Wisconsin, ninety-five percent of our inmates will be released back into society. The angels I met – the ordinary people working miracles – help all of us. They are beginning the process of returning an offender to the community as a safe and law-abiding citizen. By offering a hand of friendship and understanding, they help sooth the bitterness and anger that often stands as an obstacle to successful reintegration.
This year twenty-seven percent of adults in the United States will volunteer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since 1974, our country has recognized volunteers with a special week honoring their service.
I am convinced our world would fall apart if it were not for volunteers. There is simply no way we have the resources to begin to buy all of the services that volunteers provide.
Volunteers hold together the fabric of our communities: from the school to the library; from the church to the prison. Volunteers drive, cook, clean, teach, read, and garden. They paint the park bench and build the playground equipment.
And in the prison, volunteers throw their heart and soul into bringing light to the darkness and hope to the hopeless.
Thank you to all of the angels in disguise.