After eight years as an area director with Prison Fellowship®, Liz Stanosheck has learned things don't always go according to plan. Take the Prison Fellowship Academy® at the Lincoln Correctional Center (LCC) in Nebraska. The Academy's inaugural meetings began late in the summer of 2019, but they got off to a rocky start. Conflict percolated among the members.
"We had some participants who weren't quite participating," Liz explains.
Liz suspended the class for a few weeks. She removed one participant and reshuffled the small groups.
Her strategies worked. The class restarted in November, and after a break for the holidays, it steadily gained momentum over the winter. The men were showing up, building community, and dedicating their energy to the curriculum, eager to learn new ways of thinking and behaving based on biblical life principles. Liz was thrilled to see the LCC Academy finally taking off.
And then, in early March 2020, COVID-19 hit.
BACK ON TRACK
Instantly, everything shut down—across the country and at the LCC Academy. Class cancellations went into effect. Volunteers who had been leading discussion groups could no longer enter the prison.
This can't happen—we're just getting going, Liz remembers thinking. We just got this thing back on track.
Liz was determined to continue the Academy somehow. Her daughter, a schoolteacher, told Liz about how she had shifted to instructing via Zoom. Liz thought, Why not us? She consulted with the facility's IT staff, and together they came up with a plan.
By the third week of March, online classes were in full swing. The four volunteers facilitating the Academy at LCC learned to use Zoom and lead discussions from their homes. The participants—masked and distanced from one another—were deeply grateful.
"Not having the opportunity for visits like they were used to, that connection was more important than ever during that time," says Sarah Nelson, Deputy Warden of LCC.
'Not having the opportunity for visits like the prisoners were used to, that connection was more important than ever during the COVID shutdown.'
A few participants, struggling with the online format, dropped out—but most remained. The bonds forged in several months of in-person meetings turned into ongoing coaching and community—two cornerstones of the Academy model. Due to COVID-19 cases, some nights attendance was thin. Other nights the group couldn't gather at all. Even so, the participants pressed on, in part because of the principles they were learning.
"This is a group of individuals who persevered through a lot of disappointment [and] changes," Liz says. "I think some of that was because of the material they embraced and worked at so diligently. It's a symbol of how well this material has worked in their lives and how they formed a community, came around each other, and supported each other."
LCC's first Prison Fellowship Academy class continued via Zoom for an entire year. When it was time for graduation, a COVID-19 outbreak forced prison officials to place several units on quarantine status, and because some participants lived in those units, the ceremony was postponed.
Although the required curriculum was complete, the Academy participants continued to meet for an extra month until their eventual graduation on April 8. Liz and Prison Fellowship Region Director David Hatch attended in person at LCC; Prison Fellowship Board Member Bob Milligan, Northeast Development Director Deb Wilken, and the volunteers participated via Zoom. It was a moving night of celebration and gratitude.
'They formed a community, came around each other, and supported each other.'
SETTING THE STANDARD
No one would have thought that a Zoom-assisted Academy was ideal. But Liz says having to complete the program under such circumstances may prove a blessing in disguise.
"I think that this particular class is setting a standard and a tone of accomplishment, of perseverance, of dedication and discipline, that is going to assist them in any other endeavor that they choose to take on," Liz says. "I told them, 'You persevered when it wasn't easy—so [now] you can do other hard things.'"
Daniel, one of the recent graduates, confirms her sentiments.
"You really feel that you accomplished something," Daniel says. "Being able to know that you completed something really means a lot in here."
In addition, the forced virtual experience created options that didn't exist before. In the past, winter weather would cancel class. But now, Academy meetings can go on even when volunteers are unable to travel. That's good news for one of the LCC volunteers, whose COVID-19-induced stroke made his eyesight too poor for him to drive; Liz says he will continue via Zoom indefinitely.
Today, the men at LCC are eager to attend the Academy in its pre-COVID-19 version. Four of the recent graduates will return to serve as mentors to the incoming class. And the man who Liz removed almost two years ago will have another chance to participate.
When Liz, the volunteers, and the LCC Academy graduates look back at God's faithfulness during this most unusual season, they can't help but have great hope for the future.
'You persevered when it wasn't easy—so [now] you can do other hard things.'