For the last nine weeks I spent Wednesday mornings with 8–22 ex-offenders teaching them life skills as part of a transitional program. It was quite an emotional ride as I went from feeling the depths of despair, great hope, then plummeted right back to despair again. I am a changed man as a result of getting to know these men and women and feel grateful to have been part of their journey of integrating back into society.
Yes, they committed crimes—some heinous that reeked of poor judgement, but I am reminded that they also received so few opportunities and guidance growing up. It would be easy to say that they should know better and knew what they did was wrong, but how often do our own emotions lead us astray what we know is right?
The stories of their dreams and struggles reflected my life back to me like a mirror held right in front of me, forcing me look into the depths of my very soul. There were so many questions: Why have I not done or become more with my life? Why have I not been more in service to those in need? Why is life so unfair to some and so absurdly generous to others? In comparison, I look at how privileged my own life has been and wonder why I haven’t been more successful. As much as it hasn’t always been an easy road for me, I can’t even imagine how difficult it is for them.
It hurts me to think that some of these men and women will get out of prison and go right back in again. A few will fight like there’s no tomorrow to try to turn their lives around, but will need sheer luck and grace on their side to beat a broken system that works against their success. I have grown very fond of some of them as I have witnessed their vulnerability through their tears, pain and struggle. Though hardened by years behind bars, many still carry a gentle and kind spirit within. They love, feel and aspire for a better life like we all do.
It makes me angry that our society has largely forsaken these individuals, discarding them as if they have little worth. Each and every human being is full of extraordinary potential. My hope is that some of them will remember the skills we tried to instill in them such as digging deep within to find courage, never stop believing in themselves, and not allowing their fears to keep them from moving forward—even if the focus is just to take that next step. I can only pray that some of them will be able to recognize the transformative power that lies within them.
As human beings we need to rise above our limiting thinking to expand our sense of brotherly love to all beings and recognize it is both a blessing and privilege to be able to serve those in need. The world becomes a better place when we become better.
Jacques Lamour, Co-founder of InnerGuide, recently volunteered his time teaching life skills with life coach Lina Hollman through the program Training, Inc. This career training institute, located in Essex County College in Newark, NJ, offers educational services to help students develop skills to enrich their personal and professional lives.