What follows is the story of how this old hippie got into volunteering in a women's prison. The work is something I've wanted to do for years and years. Even so, I wasn't sure how I could tell the story, but when The Preacher came by on Monday with the wood splitter he borrows from his neighbor, it came to me how I could do it.
On Sunday, after church, The Preacher offered to help my husband, Bill, split wood. Bill gets his wood free, either from chopping down trees on our property to open up the understory or from kind souls who are happy to have him take down trees they don't want and haul the wood away. Our wood stove takes pretty big logs, so this wood splitting with The Preacher wasn't going to take much time.
Just now I looked up the word "understory" on wikipedia and found this explanation: "Young canopy trees often persist as suppressed juveniles for decades while they wait for an opening in the forest overstory which will enable their growth into the canopy." Such an intriguing sentence: a good excuse for my husband to cut down big trees and a good explanation of why it has taken me so long to find something I love doing.
Bill--this husband of my old age--was born and raised in Brooklyn, so he loves to be around trees and nature. Most of the people I know who grew up in New York City wanted to leave as soon as they could and revel in Nature. It doesn't get terribly cold here in the mountains of northeast Georgia, not like Vermont or New Hampshire where I have lived, but the temperature can drop quite low at night. However, when Bill puts a big log in right before we head for bed, our woodstove can get us through the night--and the winter--without turning on the electric heat. This brings Bill great pleasure for he is both physical and frugal.
The Preacher arrived when Bill wasn't at home, and I knew better than to ask him inside, so we stood talking, admiring the day, telling him Bill should be back in a minute with the hydrolic fluid the machine would need. I asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee; Bill makes a great brew of the drip variety. The Preacher said he didn't drink coffee. I didn't feel condemned: The Preacher is a very energetic man, and maybe, like me when I was younger, coffee is too stimulating.
I actually didn't start drinking coffee--or espresso, by preference--until after Tom--the husband of my youth--died in New Zealand in 2003. He had gotten into drinking some every Sunday when we attended the Cathedral in the Square in Christchurch. New Zealand is very much a cafe culture. We would have breakfast at the Yellow Rocket with our youngest daughter, who was still at home, and then walk across the Square, watching the vendors set up their booths, and attend services at the Cathedral. It was the last place we walked together before the surgery he never recovered from. Following his death I had a pattern to follow at a time when I had no sense of direction.
I fought Tom about drinking espresso, thinking if it didn't feel right for me, it couldn't be good for him. When someone you love dies you have a lot of time to think about all the things you did with them or to them, all the things you ought to have done or ought not to have done. After death chopped Tom's life short, I found a mocha and the routine we had shared very comforting. He had been my canopy for 34 years; it was his story that my life had been about. My life had been part of the understory.
Three years later I arrived in these mountains of Georgia to develop my relationship with Bill, a widower whose wife died just one month after Tom, and to serve as a Volunteer in Service to America, a VISTA. As a VISTA, my profile to promote Mentoring was two-pronged: to serve the schools and the community. I've done this for almost three years now, the limit. In the second year, the community prong is the one that began to take off and has proved most effective; however, it really began when I plopped myself down on a couch at Java Sun and met Jami, the owner of the combination cafe and tanning salon.
Jami is a bright and bubbly person, the wife of a dentist and volunteer fireman in town. Right away, I learned she and Ed met through the internet, just as Bill and I had. She hadn't moved half-way round the world like me, but she had moved up from Atlanta into this much quieter, slower-paced community. Her background was in business, she told me, and she and Ed bought Java Sun so right off the bat she would have something to do in town. She was about the right age to be a daughter to me, but we became fast friends; soon she was calling me her "oldest best friend."
I set up my laptop each morning in her cafe and was free to talk to people about Mentoring. Jami even let me do a training session there. Bill started calling it my "coffee office." It was a great place to present myself to the community. Over time, I kept trying to recruit Jami to be a Mentor.
"You'd make a great Mentor," I'd tell her. "These young girls would love having you speak into their lives."
"I wish I could," she'd always answer, "but, I'm pretty busy here." I could see it was true as she ran around folding towels, cleaning equipment and serving customers in her increasingly busy business.
One day when the shop was empty and I was talking to her again about being a Mentor, she got quiet.
"Candy," she said, "I need to tell you something."
"I can't be a Mentor. I wouldn't pass the security check," she said. "I've been in prison. I'm on parole right now."
"Tell me your story."
The condensed version: Mom and Dad's marriage breaks up when Jami's a teenager. Life gets crazy as everyone's trying to recover. Boss at her hotel job in Atlanta introduces her to Meth. She gets hooked. Her business skills get her into dealing. She gets busted. Dad's savings get used up in her defense. This happens, not once, but twice over the course of 8 years. Total incarceration: four years. She starts corresponding with Ed during her second incarceration. They correspond for a year before they can visit and meet face-to-face. Meanwhile, Ed often talks on the phone to Jami's mother. When he goes down to meet Jami for the first time, Ed tells his own mother he will be going to Atlanta every week to meet with a woman in prison. His mother says, "I can't wait to meet her."
Some people's stories are definitely better than others. I suppose I could spend the rest of my life trying to figure out why--but, maybe here is why:
"I want to give back," Jami said one day, "especially to women in prison...I know I'm going to be asked to speak about my life someday and I'm scared to death."
As I wrote in "Tangoing American-Style," Bill and I met in Hawaii. Before arriving there and after his return to Georgia, I was invited by my friend and hostess, Ellyn, to attend her local Toastmasters group in Haleiwa on the North Shore. I was pretty impressed with the two meetings I attended with her. Toastmasters International (www.toastmasters.org) was created about the same time as Tango, in the 1920s. I sensed something similar about Tango and Toastmasters--more than both names starting with T--as odd as that sounds. It was the orderliness, the politeness and consideration of others. I liked Toastmasters, but I certainly wasn't settled enough to pursue it at that time and forgot all about it--until Jami spoke that day at Java Sun. I asked if she'd ever heard of Toastmasters. She hadn't, so I went to their website and found the nearest group was about 20 miles away.
The condensed version: Bill and I go to two meetings, enjoy ourselves and invite another couple. They are intrigued, but don't want to attend weekly meetings at such a distance. The next week I mention Toastmasters to the Principal of the school. He tells me he's just gotten an email from the IT Director asking if any of the staff would be interested in starting a Toastmasters group. I get the details, make contact and in a amazingly short time we have 20 members and in June, of 2007, Northeast Georgia Toastmasters is chartered. They make me the first President and Jami the Secretary. There's a huge learning curve, but we learn quickly and find out Toastmasters clubs can start something called Gavel Clubs for people under 18, or those who might not have the money, or, best of all, those who are in institutions. Jami and I realize the way she can give back has been prepared for us.
Now how to get Jami back into prison?
The first time she was incarcerated Jami had applied to be recognized by Georgia's First Offender's Act. If granted, this Act would free her, once her sentence was completed, from having to reveal herself as a felon. It also meant that her name and offense would not be made public on the Department of Corrections website. She was turned down and heartbroken, because she was sure she would never offend again. Her mother said, "Jami, there has got to be a reason for this. We just don't know what it is yet."
The reason, it would turn out, had to do with another part of the First Offender's Act. If a new felony is committed--perhaps even a traffic offence--while on parole, everything changes: the first sentence must be completed with no hope of parole.
Jami served two years on her first offense, was released on parole and, four years later, offended again before she was off parole. If she had been a part of the First Offender's Act, she would still be in prison today.
Now, on parole after serving another two years, she wasn't scheduled to be off until 2013. The Education Director and Chaplain at the prison both knew Jami and approved the idea of her going in and out of the prison with the Toastmasters group. They knew she had a great story to tell the women. After writing a letter to the Warden, Jami was approved to go in and out--and, as she told her husband on the way home from her first visit, "I didn't have to take my clothes off."
On December 17, 2007, Jami got an early Christmas present: she was off parole.
She's not quite sure why this happened so quickly as her parole officer hadn't even thought the Warden would give her permission to volunteer in the prison. She thinks it may be her involvement in her church and the community. She is being asked to share her story more and more. Last year when the Mayor of Atlanta was unable to come to the prison to speak at the graduation ceremony, Jami was asked instead. She gave a speech that is still talked about. This year she was asked to do the same by the women's prison in south Georgia--the very one from which she was released.
Something the husband of my youth--a true storyteller--taught me was to look for the beauty of beginnings, the middles and ends in all things. This advice helped me pay attention to the beginning of my time here in this mountain town. I feel priviledged to have experienced Jami's growth and emergence from the understory.
Now the wood is split and neatly stacked. Tonight we will use the woodstove as the temperature will drop. It's been an unusually beautiful fall, reminding me of Vermont and New Hampshire and other wood-burning times. In the early evenings, Bill and I like to spend time looking at the setting sun filtering through the canopy of red, yellow, oranges and browns. Lower down on the property, we can see the maturing understory: it has grown quite a bit over the spring and summer.
As the light fades, I will think of Jami down in town, her sweet house and the home she is making with her husband. I will think of the women at the prison farther along the twists and turns of the road we all travel. They will be settling down for the night, too.
We are all alive and waiting, waiting in the midst of something wonderful, waiting for our openings in the understory.
late bloomer, fontanelle of the baby boomers...full of hope, believing in life-long learning, mentoring, doors opening...mother of four, grandma of one: I cultivate gardens in both hemispheres of earth and brain...
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