I’ve written a lot in the past about my life changing experiences volunteering with Breakthrough Colorado (formerly known as Defy Ventures – see posts here and here). It was five years ago that I first went into Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility to volunteer. Unfortunately, due to COVID, we haven’t been able to run any in-person classes there since 2019. Today, for the first time in two years, we were back to kick off our third cohort at this facility.
As a quick recap, Breakthrough is a nonprofit that transforms lives by teaching the power of change. We work with those who are incarcerated to rise above their past and focus on who they can be in the future, by teaching business and entrepreneurship skills that help participants get jobs after their release. (Through university partnerships, they even get an accredited business certificate upon completion of the demanding eight-month program; for many participants, the Breakthrough graduation ceremony is the first time they have ever gotten to wear a cap and gown.) Our executive director Stacey once said something that has stuck with me, especially after going through the Step to the Line empathy building exercise: we don’t give second chances; we give first chances to people who never had a chance to begin with 💕
Back in 2018, I got to work with someone who received a life sentence when he was just 20 years old. He’s now been incarcerated for 22 years – longer than he’s lived on the outside. Although Breakthrough couldn’t help him get a job on the outside if he was spending life in prison, it was able to help him shift his mindset to focus on the positive things he could still achieve. When we met, we talked about his dream of opening a training business for dogs whose owners gave up on them due to bad behavior (poetic, no?). He told me that his life goal was to make a difference and make the world a better place, even if he wasn’t allowed to go out into the world himself.
On my first trip to prison, I realized that while my new friend was on the inside and I was on the outside, he was probably the better human. If I were in his shoes, I fear that I’d have bitter anger at the circumstances that put me there, rather than his generous spirit in wanting to help others. Four years later, when I think about the kindest and best people I know, I think about him.
For each new cohort, Breakthrough selects a handful of peer facilitators from the previous cohorts to help teach the new participants and serve as role models. Each year, I hope my friend will be one of those – but since volunteers aren’t allowed to communicate with participants still on the inside, I haven’t been able to stay in touch with him. I had no idea if he applied to be a facilitator, or even if he was still living there. When I walked into the gym this morning and met one of this year’s peer facilitators, I immediately asked him the names of the others, hoping against hope that my old friend would be one of them. Unfortunately, the peer facilitator didn’t name my friend as one of his colleagues, and while I was still excited about the day ahead, I felt a twinge of disappointment.
But then… I saw my friend’s face in the crowd, and we dashed over to each other in disbelief. Turns out, while he’s not a peer facilitator, it’s because he’s been busy making a difference in other ways. He’s now a certified coach in the popular Crossfit program that meets daily, and he also started a sober living group to help other guys get off drugs and get clean. (His leadership in those programs was how he got invited to this kickoff, to represent the other opportunities that pair so well with Breakthrough.) And, he recently got approval to adopt and train the facility’s first therapy dog! I was beyond thrilled to see my friend and hear these amazing updates on everything he’s achieving.
We stuck together throughout the day, participating in this cohort’s Step to the Line exercise. This time, rather than being across from each other, my friend got to stand on the “volunteer” side, so we were side by side for all the difficult questions. Although I mostly focused on eye contact and support for the new participants who stood facing me, it was really nice to be able to “hand hug” my friend when things got hard.
And over lunch, he told me the best news of all. With recent changes in sentencing laws for those who were incarcerated at a young age, he’s got a new goal: getting released in the next 3-5 years! The possibility of that is the absolute best early Christmas present I could ever get, and I teared up many times throughout the day thinking about it. (Of course, my friend pointed out that it’s just a chance and certainly not a guarantee, matter-of-factly adding that if he didn’t get out, he would be content fulfilling his life’s purpose by continuing to help others on the inside 💕 )
Have you ever made a mistake? We all have. What if you were judged by that mistake for the rest of your life? I am beyond thrilled that my friend may get the opportunity to put his mistake behind him, and bring his amazing optimism and generosity out into the world. And selfishly, I’m so grateful that I got to see him again… and that maybe someday we’ll be able to replace “hand hugging” with giving each other a great big bear hug for real.
Today is Colorado Gives Day – and I hope you’ll join me in donating to Breakthrough. It costs $3,000 to sponsor one participant for Breakthrough’s eight-month in-facility program, and $650 to sponsor a “welcome home” pack that provides newly released participants with a laptop, cell phone, and other essential tools they need to succeed on the outside. As far as impact, while 54% of those released from prison in Colorado will find themselves back behind bars in three years, those who graduate the Breakthrough program have a recidivism rate of just 4.9% – and for participants who engage in Breakthrough’s post-release support program, that rate drops to ZERO. That’s the power of transformational change.
I believe in the goodness of humans. I believe that who you were yesterday isn’t who you have to be tomorrow – and that we all have the capacity to grow and change.