Prison Mentor Connections Run Deep
The first time Nancy Soman entered Minnesota Correctional Facility–Shakopee women's prison as a volunteer, she wasn’t sure what to expect. But the women behind bars looked just like the ones she sees in the mall or the grocery store. She quickly learned that these women have the same hopes and dreams, the same concerns about their kids, and the same struggles and insecurities as anyone else.
"[Prisoners] are created in the image of God," Nancy says. "They have made bad choices and need someone who cares about them and can encourage them."
Nancy volunteers with the Prison Fellowship Academy®— a yearlong, holistic program in dozens of men’s and women's state prisons nationwide. The Academy uses targeted curriculum, compassionate coaches, and restorative community to replace participants' criminal thinking and behaviors with renewed purpose and biblically based life principles. Graduates complete the program as change agents and good citizens inside and outside of prison.
The daughter of a pastor, Nancy felt called to serve God through prison ministry. She began volunteering with the Academy 12 years ago when a friend at her church connected her to the program.
Nancy mentors Academy graduates behind bars who are typically three to six months away from being released back into their communities. She helps them prepare for life after prison. Sometimes, she's even the one picking them up from the prison on their release day. And she frequently helps them get through the challenging first weeks and months after incarceration.
OVERCOMING OBSTACLES THROUGH TEAMWORK
When Nancy first met her mentee Anna*, she immediately recognized Anna's intelligence and bright spirit. But despite Anna's potential to take this world by storm, her heart was shrouded in pain and fear.
"She was hesitant," Nancy says. "It was hard to get her to trust and open up."
After Nancy faithfully visited Anna in prison every Thursday evening, Anna eventually began to confide in Nancy. The two became close. As Anna's release day drew near, Nancy contacted the housing facility where Anna would live after prison. Contacting mentees' release facilities was a common practice for Nancy. But this time there were hurdles.
For starters, Anna wasn't a Minnesota resident at the time of her arrest, which made her release a bit unusual. In addition, Anna was set to be released to a yearlong addiction treatment program that had strict rules on communication and mentoring. Nancy would need to complete the program center’s training program.
However, the program staff said they couldn't guarantee Nancy would be assigned to Anna (instead of a different client). But Anna kept pleading with the staff, and Nancy kept pursuing all options.
"Doors were shut in my face," Nancy says. "But the relationship we have was important enough to Anna that she was willing to do the legwork, to advocate for herself."
Nancy and Anna were allowed only a 10-minute weekly phone call and a two-hour site visit every other week. Even so, the two women never lost hope.
Finally, after three long months, the center decided to allow Nancy to be paired up with Anna after her training. The two women were eventually able to resume their mentor/mentee relationship.
THE DUAL IMPACT OF MENTORING
Anna graduated from the treatment center's yearlong program. Now she's navigating life without the restrictions and routines she had at the prison and at the treatment facility. For the first time in years, she's truly on her own. And with the help of her deepening relationship with God and of supportive people like Nancy, she is thriving.
But mentees like Anna aren't the only lives being impacted by mentor relationships. Nancy's life is transformed, too.
"It's hard to put into words just what mentoring for Prison Fellowship® has meant to my life," Nancy says. "I have made wonderful new friends; I have seen women change radically inside the walls of the prison; and I have seen the Body of Christ come around these amazing women when they have been released."
As noted in Romans 3:23, all of us—mentors and mentees alike—have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. "We are all the same," Nancy says. "We are all sisters in Christ."
* Name has been changed.
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