She was a woman from California – at that time a resident of Northeast Pre-Release Center, an Ohio Department of Corrections prison in Cleveland. I was with a group of people spending a day learning about the work of Lutheran agencies in Cleveland – we were in the visiting room at Northeast Reintegration Center to hear about the work of an LMM program called Friend-To-Friend. I had no idea of how my life would be changed by what she said.
“Until I was matched with a friend I had no visits, no contact with anyone but the people I lived among here in prison. I had no reason to care about my appearance. But having someone visit me changed that. The days my match visited I made sure I showered and did everything I could to fix up my hair.”
She had more to say that day but that is what I remember most. Someone had made a difference for her – a difference that led her to take pride in her appearance. Her testimony led me to volunteer to be a friend to someone in prison.
My first match was with Michael in 1998. I visited him monthly (volunteers commit to visiting once a month and communicating once a month by mail or email) for nearly two years and exchanged at least forty letters with him. On my visits, we shared food and so very much conversation. Michael had been in prison a number of times – he vowed that this would be his last time and as far as I know it was. Through our conversation, I began to learn how limited was my understanding of the world he grew up in and lived in. Over time I learned to no longer try to turn him into a person like me and began to respect the person he was. After he was released we stayed in contact for a number of years.
Since Michael I have been matched ten more times. The moment I most remember from all my matches was a visit with R.C. I had been matched with him for more than a year and that day asked him the question: What is the first thing you are going to do when you are released?”
After a moment’s thought he told me, “I will go to my father and tell him how sorry I am for all the ways I have hurt him through my behavior.”
Just a moment later the Control Officer in charge of the visit room left his station and came to me, asking if he could speak to me for a moment. We moved away from R.C. and the C.O. said, “I have just received news that R.C.’s father has died. Would you be willing to tell him?”
I did. I am so thankful that he had just told me how he intended to apologize to his father.
Steve Messner was the manager of Friend-To-Friend when I began with the program. He was a business owner that in his retirement was asked by Dick Sering to manage the Friend-To-Friend program as a volunteer which he did for seventeen years. In 2013 because of health issues, he could no longer continue in this role. Since I had retired from serving as a Lutheran pastor a year and a half earlier I was able to volunteer to take up the responsibility for managing Friend-To-Friend. The nine years I have done so have been a blessing to me in my retirement. I have come to know so many wonderful people that volunteer with Friend-To-Friend and who reside at Northeast Reintegration Center and Grafton Correctional Institution. I have heard speakers at the monthly Friend-To-Friend meetings in the prisons who have taught me so much about healthy and purposeful living. I wish I could take you all with me to hear them tell of their journey to prison and to a new life after their return to the community. So many say it is God’s doing.
That’s what I say about my experience with Friend-To-Friend as well.