After Eight Years . . . Eight Days of Gratitude - Part 8

The most profound and humbling lessons for me in this work over the past 8 years have come from the people whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system – people who are incarcerated and returning citizens.

A close second is all that I’ve learned from our volunteer mentors whose golden hearts of compassion have been wealth beyond measure to the people the RMO serves as well as to me.

So for this final post before I officially step down as RMO Director, I want to express my gratitude for all they’ve taught me.

The first, most essential lesson I’ve learned is that, as one of my heroes in this work, Bryan Stevenson, says: Each of us is MORE than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

I’ve seen living proof of this fact over and over again, every week at meetings of the RMO’s Successful Returning Citizens support group.

Most of the men and women who come to these meetings are unemployed or working at low-wage jobs that don’t provide enough income to afford even the most basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter, let alone any healthcare, medications, mental health services or other treatment they may need. They’re often living in unhealthy, unstable, and unsafe places, if they have a place to live at all. They are judged, labeled, and rejected by employers, landlords, and the broader community. Many are estranged from their families. They carry haunting memories and trauma from the violent and toxic culture that is rampant inside our prisons and jails. And they carry deep shame about their past, and a pervasive sense of being “unworthy” and “less than”.

Yet, they start every meeting by expressing what they are grateful for. Most of them list multiple “gratitudes” – and even listening to these is humbling, as it reminds me of all that I take for granted. “I’m grateful for another day of life.” “I’m grateful I was able to go outside and breathe some fresh air and feel the sun on my face today.” “I’m grateful for my struggles, and what they’re teaching me.”

And I am in awe at how they manage to locate that gratitude and hold fast to it, while fending off the kind of bitterness and despair that would certainly be understandable for anyone in their circumstances.

Then, they do talk about their struggles too – those listed above and more. And I am in awe at what they have to carry, and the determination, perseverance, and courage they muster to do so, day after day after day.

Then, they lift one another up with the sweet healing balm of encouragement and hope: “hang in there, brother”, “hang in there, sister”, “if I can do it, you can do it”, “you don’t have to do this alone”, “here’s my phone number – if you just need to talk to someone, call me”. They are real and tender and candid and thoughtful with each another. In the brave space they create together, anyone who’s hurting can let their guard down and allow themselves to be vulnerable, knowing that here, at least, they will be loved and tended to, never mocked, judged or shunned.

And I am in awe at their generosity of spirit, and the deeply caring and open way they connect with each other.

Finally, our volunteer mentors circle around our returning citizens, offering tangible supports like transportation to meetings and appointments, or information and guidance on accessing community resources. But more important are the “intangibles” our mentors provide to every returning citizen who comes through our doors. A warm and genuine welcome. Unconditional dignity. Compassionate listening. Acknowledgement of each person’s humanity. Affirmation of each person’s worth. Priceless treasure.

So I continue to learn from all of them, week after week, meeting after meeting, conversation after conversation.

I’ve said it before, but want to re-iterate it here: it has been one of the great privileges of my life to walk alongside of the many gutsy, tenacious, wise, and beautiful men and women who the RMO is here to serve. They have taught me so much. They are “my people” and I love them dearly.

Before closing, I want to give a special, final “shout-out” to all of our facilitators and mentors, past and present, for the RMO’s Successful Returning Citizens group. Since we started the group nearly four years ago, these folks have given freely and generously of their time, energy and wisdom to benefit others walking this path toward freedom and striving to live lives of meaning and purpose. They have been the very heart and soul of the group.

First our current list of active facilitators and mentors. A HUGE THANK YOU TO:
Tracy L
Jill M
Judy H
Kitty L
Ilona L
Alisa H
LaVonne A
Scott B
Will H
David G
Justin J
James S
Xavier M
Isaac R
Ed M
Ron A
Frantz H
Michael K
Myke R
Mark H

And our past/ “retired” facilitators and mentors. I AM SO VERY GRATEFUL FOR:
Marsha B
Amanda M
Keisha L
Jen W
Marty M
Sandra F
Rhoda F
Sue H
Irma K
Liz P
Jasmine R
Holly W
Janie B
Jonathan Q
John T
Donnie B
Pastor Matt
Mark S
Jonathan T
Bradden W
Greg E
Jim P
Aaron G
Bob A
Cortni D
Nelson G
Amy F
Missy B

Each one of you is a special treasure, and our community is stronger, healthier, and more whole because of you and all that you offer to our returning citizens.

Keep on keepin’ on.

With deepest gratitude and love for you all,
Melanie

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