- Associated Press - Sunday, June 8, 2014

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Some volunteers work in the warm and fuzzy arenas, like hiking with homeless hounds, raising research money for cancer or birth defects, delivering hot meals to the elderly homebound or staging events to benefit those with Alzheimer’s.

There’s another brand of everyday people who volunteer their time to help murderers and thieves, drug dealers and embezzlers.

They are members of Community Resource Councils who work in partnership with prisons across North Carolina not only to make inmates’ daily existence behind bars more palatable, but to help equip them with tools to succeed when they are released into society.

It’s a population that might be easily forgotten or - some might say - best forgotten. They are, after all, criminals, some of whom have committed heinous acts.

But these volunteers look at the big picture - from fiscal issues to pure humanity - in choosing to serve inmates through educational programming, cultural opportunities, life-skills training, intellectual stimulation and simply connecting with people from the outside world.

“The more we can do for them while they’re incarcerated to prepare them for release, the better off the community and society will be,” said Pam Hardin, chair of the Community Resource Council serving Craggy Correctional Center in northern Buncombe County.

“We want them to be contributors to society and to be successful,” Hardin said, adding that “from the taxpayer perspective, it’s expensive to have them come back into the system, and even to just house them.”

From the human perspective, she said, council members see the inmates as people who made mistakes but are still part of this world.

“The first time I was at the prison, I was struck by the graciousness, how polite and respectful the men were,” Hardin said. “They’re just so grateful to have someone there to pay attention to them, look them in their eye and shake their hand.

“We’re all human,” she said. “And we just meet them on that human level and try to see the good in people no matter what their situation.”

Craggy Superintendent Rick Terry said he “could not be happier” with the prison’s CRC.

“The members are very proactive and provide something to both the inmate population - which we are unable to - and also to my staff,” he said. “While ‘doing time’ is hard on everyone involved, it’s always good to see community members give of themselves and their time in the attempt to help our community.”

Terry said about 95 percent of Craggy’s inmates will be released at some point, and “the CRC members, with their programs, allow those inmates to see a different type of person who is willing to give of themselves for the betterment of all.”

“Hopefully, this will assist them in their search for a better way of life,” he said, “and help stop the return to prison.”

The volunteer council serving Craggy Correctional Center has existed for decades, but it has become more active and focused in recent years. Its members run the gamut from retired electrical engineer, counselor and artist to Episcopal priest, bank home inspector and GED tutor.

Hardin, its chair, is founder and head of Mission Hospital’s pet therapy program Paws on a Mission, and vice chair Jean Clayton - a volunteer for nearly 25 years - is retired director of adult basic skills at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.

Among the events the council sponsors are a health fair in partnership with Mission Hospital, a flag team presentation by Blue Ridge Cowboy Church members and their horses, an Agency Fair for men within two years of release, a Winter Wisdom lecture series, and participation in the annual CROP Walk, in which inmates walk laps around the ball field to raise funds for hunger relief.

The council raised $6,000 to build kennels for the prison’s participation in the statewide New Leash on Life program, in which inmates train and socialize homeless dogs to be candidates for adoption, and continues to support that program.

Council members also hold staff appreciation events, sponsor one-time programs such as an upcoming appearance by the Henderson County Robotics Team, partner with Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community for book donations to the prison library and assist with Project Reentry to provide donated clothes for men leaving prison.

“Our council is always searching for new ideas to expand the knowledge and life experiences of the men. We know that many will one day be released, and we believe that they will take some part of our programs with them,” Clayton said.

“When we’re on the inside, we know that the men will always be an attentive and courteous audience,” she said. “And whether we recruit new members to our council or simply ask volunteers to participate in a single program at Craggy, we are changing attitudes, both in the prison and in the community.”

Inside the prison, it’s clear that council volunteers and the programs they bring are making an impact. Jose Cordoba, 37, serving time for drug trafficking, said he was especially appreciative of last year’s Agency Fair and Health Fair, the council’s fifth.

“I can see at these events that a lot of people care about us, and we try to show them respect, too,” Cordoba said. “Like, I used to eat whatever food was available and didn’t think about the risk of eating a lot of salt and stuff, and now I think about it before I eat it after one of the doctors explained to me the risk of eating junky food.”

At the Agency Fair, “they show you different avenues you can take to learn different things, like enrolling in community college courses,” Cordoba said. “They offered me a lot of information about continuing my education and finding jobs, and that’s really going to make a difference in my life.”

Eric Valdez, 26, serving a life sentence for a murder committed when he was 17, attended each lecture in the Winter Wisdom series, last year focusing on self-improvement and the arts, and this year on innovations.

“The entrepreneurship topics they had this year were incredible - they brought in this guy who teaches at Western Carolina University, and he was great,” Valdez said. “And last year, they had a harp player who even played one request for Metallica.”

Valdez, who like Cordoba is involved in New Leash on Life, knows he may spend the rest of his life behind bars, but he’s soaking up every bit of knowledge that’s offered.

“I try to keep hope in the back of my mind that it’s (release) possible, but even if it’s not, I still want to be prepared for anything that can happen,” Valdez said. “I want to keep healthy, I still want to learn things, whether I ever get out or not.”

The Community Resource Council’s efforts impact inmates in unexpected ways, he said, citing as an example the man who had never seen a horse and was fearful when another inmate dared him to feed the animal after the Cowboy Church presentation.

“He was scared, but he picked some grass and fed it to the horse, and after the horse ate the grass, he was happy and excited and did it again,” Valdez said.

Council members show up for all of the programs they organize and go the extra mile to bring in speakers and put on smaller, one-time events, he said.

“They round up all these people in an incredible way, like that teacher from Western - he didn’t have to do that,” Valdez said. “I think I speak for everybody here when I say we really appreciate and thank them for all they’re doing.”

Keith Acree, communications officer with the N.C. Department of Public Safety, said the greatest benefit Community Resource Councils offer is bringing volunteers into the prisons “to provide the services we have such a need for, and that might not exist if we didn’t have these volunteers. And they provide a fundraising service at many prisons for things that aren’t funded in the state budget,” such as the kennels at Craggy.

Especially valuable, Acree said, are programs that “keep inmates occupied and bring positive influences from the outside community who can serve as role models and mentors and keep inmates engaged in positive activities.”

“All of these things are part of the larger rehabilitative process; everything we do, from academic training to vocational rehab to cognitive behavior training, is all part of the rehab puzzle,” he said, “with the hope that inmates will leave in a better state than when they came to us - and not return to us.”

Richard Elingburg, assistant superintendent for programs at Craggy, said in addition to the variety of programming, the presence of the council members and the other volunteers they bring into the prison offer a valuable gift.

“Anytime people come in from the outside, and the inmates know they’re coming of their own free will and not for any other reason than to assist inmates, it’s a positive thing,” Elingburg said.

“And all of these different events the CRC sponsors and the classes volunteers teach, this all reduces tension and gives the inmates more of a mindset that the community is involved with them and cares about them,” he said.

The council, Elingburg said, “is an important piece of the puzzle, building bridges between the community and inmates, and between the staff and inmates.”

“What they bring is important as far as information, maintaining civility and giving inmates hope,” he said. “They’re doing a lot to make the situation better and to help men transition out to the community. And anything that breaks the monotony of the prison environment is a good thing.”

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Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, https://www.citizen-times.com

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