Saturday, February 28, 2015

A memento from my time in prison

From Stephanie, Spring 2014 graduate 
Stephanie handed me this letter the day she graduated from Talk to Me Circle in the spring of 2014. There were 17 women in my class that semester. TTM Circle is a class for incarcerated women, and I have led it as a volunteer facilitator since 2010. This class and others like it are made possible through an Austin nonprofit called Truth Be Told.

In TTM Circle, the women are challenged to write and share the story of what led them to prison — not the details of the crime itself, but a broader introspection that asks the women to look deep into their pasts to identify formative experiences and personal decisions that they feel ultimately led to where they sit today: behind bars.

Equally important to writing their stories, the women are required to read their stories aloud in class, which is a powerful exercise in learning how to trust, speak the truth, listen deeply, respect confidentiality, have compassion for self and others, and participate in a safe community.

The thing I remember most about Stephanie is that she offered to read a classmate's story to the class when this particular classmate expressed severe anxiety about reading in front of her peers. This student, Jessica, was an English language learner and very self-conscious about speaking English in front of people, plus her story included things she had never admitted to anyone — details of childhood sexual abuse. Jessica knew enough English to write about her life, but she couldn't bring herself to read it.

Seeing her classmate in distress, Stephanie raised her hand and then addressed Jessica directly: "Would you feel better if someone read it for you? Because I will if you want me to."

Through tears, Jessica nodded her head and held out her loose-leaf pages for Stephanie. Stephanie crossed the room and accepted the paper so carefully, as if it were truly Jessica's life she held in her hands. She stood beside Jessica, who remained seated, and cleared her throat.

"My name is Stephanie. And this is Jessica's story. ..."

What struck me as Stephanie read was how she seemed to feel Jessica's life as if it had happened to her. Her eyes grew misty as she read about Jessica as a toddler, pretending to bake in the kitchen with her grandmother. She laughed as she spoke of Jessica and her cousins, playing outside until well after dark and the mischief they would cause. And she spoke through heavy sobs as she recounted details of a childhood abuser and the very dark years that followed, as Jessica spiraled out in a whirlwind of self-destruction. Jessica mostly kept her face buried in her hands as Stephanie read, but when it was over, she looked up at Stephanie with such appreciation and love, and I could see on Stephanie's face that she knew she had just done something really good. Really, really good.

All of us in the room could feel it. We felt proud of Stephanie, compassion for Jessica and honored to have witnessed it all. We were a circle of women who had, inside a prison, successfully built a community of trust, of love, of compassion, of authenticity, of truth, of integrity, of hope, of healing, of new beginnings.

Word by word and story by story, we were speaking life back into each other and empowering ourselves to write new chapters, better chapters, in our life stories.

Truth Be Told has been around for 15 years and has served more than 1,000 female inmates with its programs, but only in recent years have our classes really been discovered. We now have facilities asking for our curriculum and waiting lists at the facilities where we currently have classes. We need money to strengthen our tiny infrastructure and to expand our programming so we can reach more women.

March 5-6 is Amplify Austin Day, a 24-hour online giving campaign that raises money for nonprofits serving Central Texas. Will you consider scheduling a donation to Truth Be Told on Amplify Austin Day or donating any day by clicking the DONATE button on Truth Be Told's website?

Every dollar counts. I'm grateful for whatever you can give. Please help us reach more Stephanies and Jessicas. Will you?

Ms. Katie,

I just wanted to thank you for taking your time to volunteer here at Lockhart and for reaching out to us. Also for sharing your story with us. The true story, not the edited one. For confiding and trusting in us as we have you. Thank you for the words of encouragement, motivation, strength and life. As you speak, I feel that you speak life back into us.

As the truth is told and we are emptied of the weight it has burdened us with for so long; reinforcement and life are what we have began to be filled with again and that's because of you and the opportunity this class has brought forth.

I can personally tell you I have felt a weight lifted from my shoulders and that my heart is finding its way back together again. I'm sleeping better and I feel like there's hope and a future for me. I can live again and live life to its fullest. I can do this because my truth has been told and I no longer have those burdens. Thank you Truth Be Told and thank you Katie. You have been a blessing in my life.