January 5, 2014

EDDIE BAUER AND THE SWINGING STAR (A short story) – by Jeffrey Hillard

Editor’s note:  “Eddie Bauer and the Swinging Star” is a short story that will be part of a fiction writing workshop to be held in 2014 in an Ohio prison. It is a Young Adult short story

***

The girl behind the stage curtain was not anxious to perform her role tonight. Her name was Genine, and she looked over her shoulder to see if Eddie Bauer was nearby.

He was.

Eddie Bauer stood about ten feet behind Genine, staring into a small oval mirror, combing his thick brown hair. Much of the hair on the back of his head still stood up, as if frozen in place. He didn’t glance at Genine or anyone else. It was a case of Eddie- intent-on-Eddie in that mirror. Eddie played the role of one of the three Wise Men in the church’s performance of “The Christmas Story” for the community.

Genine played the role of Mary. Tonight was the first of three performances. Eddie already knew that he had made a lasting impression on the cast and especially Genine. He’d instilled his strange kind of presence; not only did he continually and jokingly taunt Genine, but he had been reprimanded three times just in the last week. Eddie had taken one of the large foam stars hanging from a thin rope – the largest star, the Star of Bethlehem – aimed it at Genine, and pushed the star into her Mary costume, knocking her slightly off balance.

“I’ll have none of that, Eddie,” said Mr. Stipple, the director. “Sit in that first row and don’t move until I tell you to. Do not look at Genine. Do not look at anyone. Look at me or at the pianist. Do not make faces. And be still. Got it?”

“Just joking, Mr. Stipple,” Eddie said. “It’s only a fake star.”

“It’s not a joke to Genine,” Mr. Stipple said. “It’s also the second time you’ve almost ripped one of the points on the star.”

Eddie looked back at Genine and saw her eyes tearing up. They were fourth-grade students at JohnHookElementary School and, unfortunately, they did sit close to each other in science and math class. Their teacher had warned last week that she would move Genine to another table if Eddie pinched her shoulder one more time on his way to the teacher’s desk.

Tonight, Genine stepped out from behind the curtain and paused. She looked out at the small crowd before sitting next to the manger. She became very confident all of the sudden. She loved the stage and any little acting role her school or church could offer. Then she saw Eddie next to the curtain, pointing upward to the largest foam star, nearly the size of a wide screen television. Eddie smiled at Genine. She did not smile back.

Eddie walked up to one of the other shepherds, Tony Gill. “Genine thinks I’ll pull down the star and toss it during the real performance,” Eddie said. “How funny is that? I can’t believe she thinks that.”

“I’ll give you my five dollars if you do,” Tony whispered.

“I can’t,” Eddie said. “I can’t mess with the star. My family’s here. I’d better not get in trouble.”

“I don’t have five dollars anyway,” Tony said.

In the car on the drive home, Eddie’s father patted him on the knee and complimented his performance. “Those Wise Men were really the stars of the show,” he said. “You guys hardly moved a muscle. The Wise Men were the only company Mary and Joseph had way back in that day, except for the animals. Imagine some Wise Men coming into a stable after all those miles of traveling and smelling those old animals.”

“I only have one line in the play, so I’m bored,” Eddie said.

“But that’s why you Wise Men are the stars,” his father said. “You don’t need to say anything. You just look important. A good actor has presence on stage.”

“I’d rather have stuff to say,” Eddie said.

“You don’t want to take chances,” his father said. “Look at cowboy John Wayne. He just preferred to sit high on his horse’s saddle and tilt his cowboy hat. He looked cool just sitting on a horse. John Wayne didn’t need to say a word.”

Eddie thought more about Genine, who played Mary. She had quite a few memorable lines, and she handled them gracefully, as though she had much acting experience. Genine was the best performer in their class, even though she was shy and polite. She never came off as seeming more important than others. She did not draw attention to herself. She was the vice president of elementary student council and would be president by the sixth grade, Eddie thought.

Eddie sensed, of course, that his playing practical jokes on Genine would bring her out of her shyness. Genine’s utter surprise at knowing the star was being flung right toward her made her jerk. When Eddie first tossed the foam star at her two weeks ago at rehearsal and realized that Genine did not see it coming, Eddie thought the sound of her shrieking was beautiful. The star had not been hung on a metal beam yet, although one star point was tied to the rope. Eddie tossed it from behind the stage curtain at a quiet dramatic moment, when the Joseph character was praying next to Mary. Eddie was warned then by Mr. Stipple not to do it again. But Eddie enjoyed hearing Genine’s voice and her shrieking, and he was not a boy to follow directions very carefully.

*  *   *

The morning after the first public performance, when Eddie went downstairs for breakfast, his mother told him to sit down. “I have news for you,” she said to him. Eddie listened to his mother describe an early morning phone call from Mr. Stipple. At first, Eddie thought he might be in trouble, but Mr. Stipple had the matter of a car accident on his mind.

Of course, it had been raining last night and the streets were slick, as Eddie could easily remember. But when his mother said that the car accident involved Genine and her mother, his mind became jammed with images of Genine: the foam star, the string, Genine crouching as the foam star Eddie tossed nicked her head, Genine in her Mary costume, and Mr. Stipple’s knobby finger pointed at him.

“Genine is ok,” his mother said. “She just got bruised up and probably broke her arm.”

“Will she still be Mary?”

“That I don’t know,” his mother said. “I doubt it.”

“Her mother ok?”

“Her mother got pretty banged up. She’s going to be in the hospital a few days. She had severe whiplash.”

“I guess they couldn’t get out of the way of the other car,” Eddie said.

“The other car skidded into them,” his mother said. “The driver ran a stop sign, according to Mr. Stipple.”

After Eddie put his dishes in the sink, a strange moment occurred. He looked up and saw his father in the doorway with his car keys. To Eddie, his father seemed to be reading his mind. Quietly standing there, dangling the keys on his thumbs, his father smiled. Eddie immediately felt as if he knew what his father’s next move would be. He felt drawn toward his father’s calmness and Eddie’s eyes focused on the car keys.

“Let’s go see Genine for five minutes and cheer her up,” his father said.

“I was thinking something like that,” Eddie said. “It’s funny you were sort of thinking the same thing.”

“And then you can say, ‘Sorry about the star tossing, and I hope you get better real fast.’ You got that?” his father said.

“Sure.”

Genine looked groggy when Eddie and his father first walked in the hospital room. Her mother was in the room next to her. She said a polite hello and looked mildly shocked that she had visitors this early in the day. His father had stopped by the grocery store to get her a rose and Eddie placed it in a narrow vase they brought from home.

“It’s pretty, and I’ll take it home,” Genine said.

“Sorry about tossing those stars at you during practice,” Eddie said. He looked over toward the silent television and nearly felt the urge to leave.

“I guess we all did a good job last night,” Genine said. “Did you sign any autographs on the programs?”

“One. It was my mother’s program.”

Eddie’s father brought Genine a glass of water and said he hoped the family could sign her arm cast one day soon. When they left Genine’s room, Eddie and his father looked in to see if Genine’s mother was awake, but she was sleeping.

*   *   *

The small church auditorium was full to capacity for the third night’s performance two days after the car accident. Baby Jesus in the manger tonight was a doll wrapped in a white blanket. Genine shifted the doll a few inches with here her right hand. She was careful not to jostle her left arm which was in a cast and sling. No one had yet signed her cast, as Eddie had detected before the show.

Each of the cast members seemed even more attentive to their roles than the night before. They’d gained energy with this second performance. No one forgot his or her lines. No one stumbled. Joseph’s character did not giggle tonight. One of the shepherds did not sneeze as he had done last night. Their Christmas songs were sung clearly and the carolers stayed in rhythm with the piano melodies.

And as Eddie Bauer, a Wise Man, looked up at the shiny foam star on a rope above the manger, Eddie could see the ten or twelve very large ‘G’s he had inscribed all around the thick side of the star. Eddie had asked his parents to drive him to the church auditorium a half-hour early. He explained that he wanted to write the initial ‘G’ around the side of the star, the same way baseball players write the jersey number of an injured player who’s not playing on their jersey sleeves or ball caps.

“It will be a nice surprise for her,” he had told his parents and Mr. Stipple.

“Here’s a thick black marker,” Mr. Stipple said. “Go to it. But don’t ruin the star’s face, Edward.” Mr. Stipple paced nervously around the stage, adjusting ornaments and the set features, only half-paying attention to Eddie or his parents.

After the performance, Genine handed the star to her father who waited for her by the stage. “Let’s go take this to mom,” she said. “Eddie said his father will make a new star for the last show tomorrow.”

“We can hang it above your mother’s bed,” her father said. “It’s a pretty big one.”

The star was so awkward that Genine’s father needed two hands to carry it. Eddie followed them out to the car and helped Genine’s father maneuver the foam star neatly into the trunk.

“We’ll sign your cast tomorrow, right?” Eddie said.

“Right. But don’t forget to bring that new star,” Genine said. “Try to make it as big as this one in the trunk.”

Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey Hillard

____________

Jeffrey Hillard’s new book is ICE SCULPTURE IN THE DESERT: Short Stories to Enrich Your Prayer Life.  It is available at http://www.amazon.com

He has also recently published STORY’S TRIUMPH: Mining Your Creative Writing for Its Deepest Riches.  It is also available at http://www.amazon.com

 

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December 11, 2013

Maurice Clarett: ESPN Interview

This excellent interview with former football star for The Ohio State University, Maurice Clarett, aired on ESPN radio’s SVP & Russillo Show on Wednesday, December 11, 2013.

Here’s the link to the program: SVP & Russillo.

It was heartening to hear Clarett describe the positive life changes he has adopted since his prison sentence ended not long ago. Talk about transformation and healthy life-choices made in recent years: the former thug and potential N.F.L. star spelled out the positive changes he’s embraced that can be traced back to the sequence of infractions and crimes that culminated in his prison sentence.

During his football heyday at O.S.U., Clarett was involved in multiple questionable life-choices, which endangered not only the lives of others around him but his own life.

Clarett very capably describes the moments when the fortress of collegiate stardom came tumbling down. This is a must-listen-to segment. Cudos to Scott Van Pelt and Ryan Russillo for inviting Clarett into the ESPN studio.

Clarett is featured in the upcoming ESPN 30 for 30 series documentary, “Youngstown Boys.”  The documentary airs Saturday, December 14.

 

December 10, 2013

The Irrepressible Line in Your Poetry (by Jeffrey Hillard)

** The following is also a free bonus article for those that purchased my ebook, STORY’S TRIUMPH: Mining Your Creative Writing for Its Deepest Riches on http://www.Amazon.com.

Several years ago, I taught this session to female inmates at Franklin Pre-Release Center, a prison that formerly housed female inmates.

______________________

Breaks Away

The kind of attention that poets give to a poem’s individual lines is often a source of great frustration. We write the poem. We “get it all out.” We hurry to write. We think the poem contains most all of what it intends to say. Maybe we’ve spent hours on it. Perhaps even days. And we stare at the poem repeatedly and think, “These lines don’t seem right. They’re lacking in something. They don’t feel true to the poem. How can this poem get more from its individual lines?”

There is not an easy answer to this question.

The options for line lengths and breaks are many. The way a poem “appears” on the page becomes a subjective decision, especially if you’re writing in free verse, with no dependency on a particular form.

With the free verse line – which is what we’ll focus on here – there are seemingly unlimited ways to arrange a line. Still, in getting the most out of your lines, you must ask: what does this poem want? What does this poem need?

Since Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, and so many others proved that a poem’s strength can be derived from close attention to the poetic line, let’s examine several ways that a poem can achieve more interesting energy and fluidity.

Free Verse

When writing free verse, for example, it’s easy to get lost in the over-arching feel of the poem, in its grand, free development. But, as some poets have complained, their subject matter may not be that interesting because there lines have “the blahs.”

John Hollander writes in “Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse” that “since a line may be determined in almost any way, and since lines may be grouped on the page in any fashion, it is the mode of variation itself which is significant.” I strongly agree. Let’s look at this variation in poems by three poets who give major attention to energizing a poem’s lines.

I like to use the phrase, “manipulating the line.” Two basic options for “manipulating” rise to the forefront: one is allowing poetic lines to achieve immediacy. By immediacy, I mean that a poetic line reflects a sort of spontaneity. It may put the reader’s attention greatly on the line’s end word(s). A second option is to emphasize more rhythm; this is especially true with longer lines.

The lines that achieve immediacy, where momentum can gather quickly from the middle to end of the line, are usually short lines. Take this excerpt from the poem, “Money,” from the book Split Horizon by Thomas Lux. Look at the energy his lines generate. Look at Lux’s attention toward the end word in these lines:

“A paper product. We say it’s green

but it’s not, it’s slate green, drained green.

New, it smells bad

but we like to sniff it

and when we have a relative pile

we not only want to inhale it but also look at it,

hear it buzz

as we work with our thumbs

its corners like a deck of cards.”

There is no mistaking the energy in these lines. The breaks seem arbitrary, and maybe they are, but notice how the senses of sight and smell are emphasized. The references to money as “smells bad,” “it,” “pile,” and “it” create an urgent image – and not a positive one – in the reader’s mind. The “paper product” itself presented here almost has an eerie human feel to it. These nine lines contain only one full sentence (“A paper product” being a fragment). But it’s not a sentence that drones on. It is crisp and controlled, and it has the freshness of spontaneity.

The same can be said of this excerpt from the poem, “The Winged Eye,” by Beckian Fritz Goldberg. She goes for a similar immediacy, although her line lengths are not as jagged. Consider these lines:

“We sit in the garden where lips

purse in the snapdragons. A chicken

lands on his arm leaving its claw

print in his skin like creases in the cardboard

seal of a cereal box

pressed beneath a thumb.”

In this poem, the speaker imagines being cast into hell. In the poem the devil actually reads a book to the speaker. The speaker is entranced by the devil’s calmness. In these lines, notice how the poem emphasizes the chicken, claw, cardboard, box, and thumb. The mystery of the devil’s physical presence is expressed in the way one simple sentence is broken: “A chicken/lands….” To break the subject and verb here energizes those lines and keeps momentum happening. The break of “cardboard/seal” is a poetic strategy called “enjambment,” which means jamming one line, basically, into the next line. This mostly occurs when end-words presented as subjects and verbs or adjectives and nouns are broken.

Rhythm of the Night – and Day

Other than for immediacy and abruptness, shape your lines for rhythm. You may want to mix line lengths, for example, to vary a certain rhythm in a poem. The poet Belle Waring concentrates on blending long lines with short lines in most of her poems in her book, “Dark Blonde.”  Here is an excerpt from her poem, “Shots”:

“…but in the ambulance, he codes, and then, in the ER

with the furious swirl of personnel, crash cart rumbling up, curtains

snatched to shield him from the drive-bys and the drunks,

the boy expired.

Measles encephalitis.

He never got his shots.”

Waring shows how the longer line more often depends on lucid sound. In this case, the alliteration of “crash cart” and “curtains,” and “drive-bys” and “drunks.” There’s a focus on long-vowel sounds in those first three lines that add to the mystery of what’s happening to the boy. But the staccato rhythm of the last three lines signals the boy’s fate. It is explicit. It’s not pretty. The poem’s lines are etched in a lyrical music.

It’s true that most anything can happen in a poem when it’s written in free verse. But if you find that your poem is lacking in energy, momentum, or even interest, you might try “manipulating” your lines for maximum effect. A poem is so beholden to language, and because of that, the poet owes it to his or her poem to pay attention to the individual lines, to sculpt them in a way that benefits the poem.

__________________________________

Editor’s Note: This article stems from a workshop session at Franklin Pre-Release Center in Ohio in which some of this material was covered. 

July 20, 2013

WOOF! – Part 2 (by Patricia N. Wernert)

The “big house,” “stir,” “crossbar hotel,” “slammer,” and “joint” are a few of the names one hears in movies, on t.v., and in books when a person goes to prison.

Such adjectives are colorful and likely can cause those of a curious nature to pause a moment and say, “Hmmm.”

From my perspective and too close for comfort in personal experience, such adjectives are so many smoke and mirrors. Let’s just be honest and say “prison.”

Society generally prefers to view those inside prison as less than human. There is a bit of a “silver lining” in that dark cloud and that happens to be people who decide to think for themselves. These kind and independent individuals chose to look beyond the prisoner title and see a human being.

Positive thinking led me to the unique opportunity to train dogs while in prison. Pretty cool, isn’t it?

I grew up with cats, dogs, bunnies, horses, and a variety of “rescued wildlife” much to the dismay of my mother. “A garden snake…good grief, get it out of here, now!” she’d say. It seems like only yesterday that I heard those words. I feel that my childhood growing up in a rural setting set me on the path to wanting to train and care for animals.

Prior to coming to prison, I worked in veterinarian offices and learned firsthand what is involved in treating small animals. A lot of caring for pets is good old common sense. When a person takes on the responsibility of a pet, he or she should be willing to provide for all of the animal’s needs.

Fast forwarding to approximately 18 years into my incarceration: I was given the chance to raise and train puppies for Pilot. In my last essay, “Woof [part 1],” you met “Wells,” my first puppy. I felt I had a real purpose and was doing something positive and productive with my time.

Training dogs in a prison setting throws a few unexpected twists into one’s routine. In prison, there are set times a prisoner must adhere to or face disciplinary consequences. Specific times are mandated when an inmate must be in her room/cell to be counted, go to meals, or go without eating, room clean, shower, do activities, and take on many other aspects of day-to-day living.

Add a six-to-eight-week old puppy into those activities, a puppy that has no real control over bodily functions, wants to cry and bark in the middle of the night when your roommate wants to sleep. Imagine that I have to navigate long corridors to get the little bundle of fur to the yard to go to the bathroom. It can make for some interesting adventures.

Puppies and adult dogs all need four things: fair, firmness, consistency, and love should be shown in all aspects of their training and life.

July 20, 2013

MY TIME – Column by Melissa Vanover

 

Before my incarceration, I was not very educated. I dropped out of school in the eighth grade to give birth to my daughter. After that, my life eventually spiraled out of control and into a life of organized crime: fast cars and even faster men.

All I had wanted was a better life for my children than I had at that time. I seemed to make all the wrong choices. I put myself and my children in dangerous situations. I simply wasn’t thinking! I was too caught up in the “good life,” the life of the world. That world ended up being not so good afterall. It was a lifestyle that led me to prison to serve a sentence of 25-years to life.

Since my incarceration, I have grown up a lot in these past 15 years. I finally earned my G.E.D. and completed several group programs to help better understand myself; these programs included topics and experiences covering “Who am I,” depression, self-discipline, victim’s awareness, eating disorders, “Cage of Rage,” and “Thinking for a Change.”

I have also increased my occupational skills. Although not licensed, I have become quite the “handywoman.” I have done plumbing and general maintenance, such as building things and repairing just about anything, painting, and laying tile. I can drive a forklift and I can weld.

For the past year and a half, I’ve had on-the-job training as an electrician, which is something I absolutely love. My crew saved the state of Ohio thousands of dollars by taking on the project of wiring and putting up security cameras in all the housing units. It has been great experiences to have under my belt.

I can also operate a ‘scissor lift’ and I have had the exhausting opportunity of using a jack hammer when tearing up and replacing a concrete step. Doing all this hard work has humbled me.

I attended church at home years ago. But I was never serious about it. Again, as I’ve written before, I had my spiritual breakthrough in 2001. Now, I’m serious about my salvation, and I know I’m not perfect and I do fall short sometimes. I fight it, but God knows I’m worth it. And I’m so thankful that He will never give up on me. I just need to learn to be more like Him and less like “myself,” and that I should never give up on Him.

April 12, 2013

Charity Miles: Interview with William Lambers

The following is an interview with William Lambers, whose vigorous work with addressing global hunger has now reached international proportions.  RED! contributing writer, Le’Erin Watts, conducted the interview.

RED!: What is it about The College of Mount St. Joseph that interests you and why are you so connected?

W.L.: I went to school at the college as an undergraduate and also for my master’s degree. Over that time, I have gotten to know teachers on campus, many of who are also authors or journalists. That personal interaction you have at the Mount with the teachers keeps you connected.

RED!: People around the country know you for your fight against and work to address hunger, especially hunger around the world. How are you able to involve the younger students at Mount St. Joseph in the work you do?

W.L.: I get the opportunity to speak at Mount classes and also take part in some events on campus. This gives me the chance to talk to the students about global hunger and ways they can get involved, including one way I will talk about in the next answer.

 

RED!: What interested you about Charity Miles?

W.L.: I used to see these tweets from the World Food Programme about Charity Miles so I asked what was this about? The World Food Programme office in New York filled me on the details, which I could use in a story. Charity Miles is a free app that you just download onto your cell phone. For every mile you walk, run, or bike you can raise money for a charity like the World Food Programme or Feeding America. Since I also walked and since I am a former runner, I thought I could maybe get involved myself. I just needed to get the cell phone, which I did.

RED!: Have you started the program? How many miles have you logged?

W.L: I announced to Jeffrey Hillard’s Cincinnati Authors class in late 2012 that I would attempt to start Charity Miles. I started it almost right after that class and have logged well over 100 miles mostly running and some walking. I was around 100 miles when I tried to count them in early December and have logged many miles since. I was told I am the 4th ranked runner in terms of miles for the World Food Programme.

RED!: Are there any other charities or organizations out there that are using creative ways to raise money?

W.L.: The World Food Programme has an online game called FreeRice which I talk a lot about in classes and speaking engagements. I even wrote a few of the questions for the game. Every time you get a correct answer ten grains of rice are donated to the World Food Programme. Some charities like the Feed Project sell merchandise to raise funds. There are creative ways that come right from the College of Mount St. Joseph, too. A student, Elizabeth Paff, who was recently in the Cincinnati Authors class, has started hunger fighting initiatives including launching a FreeRice team and collecting funds for life-saving Plumpy’nut food, which treats malnutrition, and gradually I believe she also plans to help faciliated a hunger walk to raise awareness to helping provide food to those in great need.

William Lambers is an author and historian. Visit his sites: http://www.williamlambers.com  Author page at Amazon.com http://www.twitter.com/williamlambers

February 11, 2013

WOOF! (by Patricia N. Wernert)

“How would you like a puppy?” I was asked. Sounds like a pretty straightforward question that is posed everywhere. I would like to share why that very question was anything but ordinary when I was asked it in the early 1990s.

In 1993, I had been incarcerated 18 years and certainly had not experienced the touch of silky ears or big brown eyes looking at me during this time. I was being offered the unique opportunity of helping to start a prison program of raising puppies for “Pilot Dog.” As puppy raisers, we receive eight-week-old to raise as potential service dogs for visually impaired individuals. In my mind, gosh, what a great opportunity to give back to others.

Puppies require care, love, and gentle direction in learning basic commands. Prison rules put a good deal of added structure into what is usually easy. My puppy may need to “go potty,” but if it is “count time” the puppy has to wait. Try explaining that to an eight-week-old puppy in the middle of the night.

The upside of doing something like this is watching and guiding the tiny puppy as it grows into a beautiful dog. Your time and hard work develop before your eyes. No matter how bad a day you may have, you have to smile at the antics of a puppy. You start smiling, your mood improves, and you respond in a positive manner with other inmates or staff.

One of the few things a person in prison has any control over is how she or he reacts to any situation. Inmates are told when to go to bed, to get up, to perform bodily functions, to go eat, what to eat, what to wear, and what to do in about all aspects of life. I have found that keeping a positive mindset, even when adversity abounds makes a situation easier to get through. Having that puppy trip over its feet or run up to you makes you smile and it defuses whatever negative event that may have transpired earlier.

I am still training dogs in 2012 and 2013, and no one could have told me that I would still be doing it in prison. The incarceration sentence of 20-years-to-life is now approaching 38-to-life. Yeah, that is pretty depressing if I dwell on the negative aspect of this time. I look down on the nine-week-old black Lab I named “Cricket” curled up at my feet and see the positive. I am privileged to raise this puppy and she will eventually give a person freedom.

When a dog is partnered, we see the letter that Pilot Dog sends to the institution, and I feel a ssense of helping another person. We never know the actual name of the person, only if it is a man or woman.

I have worked with training other service disciplines in another prison-based program. This is very worthwhile, too.

Dogs are so much more than pets and capable of doing a wide variety of tasts to help humans live a fuller and safer life. If you happen to see a service dog guiding its person along, it just might be a dog that began its service in a prison. People in prison can begin to their future, too. We just need a chance.

 

 

Editor’s Note:  Patricia N. Wernert is incarcerated at Dayton Correctional Institution. She is one of the leaders in a special program that helps raise dogs that provide future assistance to visually impaired individuals.

 

 

February 11, 2013

ENCOUNTERING THE OTHER (story by Jessica Baltzersen)

“In our society, we don’t know what to do with people that become other,” says Dr. Kate Lassiter, assistant professor of Religious and Pastoral Studies at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The “other” she is referring to are the men and women incarcerated whose voices go unheard and who, as some people perceive, become permanently identified as a delinquent or criminal. When she was 21-years old, Lassiter found herself working with inmates inside a correctional institution. She did not commit a crime, nor was she incarcerated. Instead, she spent her time inside prison walls dedicating her summer to prison ministry work.

It was the summer of 2000, in Hagerstown, Maryland. Lassiter divided her time working at Roxbury Correctional Institution, Maryland Correctional Institution, and Maryland Correctional Training Center. She entered the facilities not knowing what experiences she would encounter.

Lassiter never expected to be working in prison ministry. “It was just something I stumbled into,” she said.

She worked with a Catholic nun in a male correctional facility where she was known as “Sister Kate,” and for three days a week she performed counseling sessions, organized prayer and worship groups, and led church services. The other two days a week she spent in after-prison ministry at a social service agency that helped those individuals who were no longer incarcerated. This service provided basic needs, food, and also housing referrals.

“Prisons were originally religious institutions intended for solitude and reflection,” says Lassiter. Through counseling inmates, she was able to witness the metanoia or spiritual transformation of men who wanted to turn their lives around for the better.

“It was hard, though, because I was never there 24/7,” she says. “There’s no way I could fully grasp or understand what it would be like to be in solitude all of the time.” She came to this realization on July 4, 2000. As she was walking out of the prison she glanced back at the barbed wire surrounding the facility and then looked up at the dark night sky being lit up with fireworks. Seeing the two elements, one symbolizing freedom and the other oppression, she realized how contrary the two were and how she was simply an outsider trying to understand what the people inside the walls were going through.

“Religion sets up guidelines for our lives,” says Lassiter, “and religion has an ability to empower one person.”

She remembered one man in particular, who at the time weighed over 400 pounds. After he began to accept Jesus into his life, he was inspired to not only turn his life around spiritually, but mentally and physically as well. He taught himself to run and lost nearly 200 pounds. He also went back and pursued his GED. After he allowed God into his life it inspired him to change his entire self.

The justice system uses incarceration to keep people oppressed. But to some of those who are incarcerated it is a “community to call home, where they encourage each other,” says Lassiter. In experiencing incarceration, an inmate can view it as a punishment or it can be viewed as a second chance to look within oneself and realize that through spirituality one has the ability to change his or her life.

Twelve years ago, Lassiter worked with what she describes as “people on the edge.” Now, as an assistant professor in the Department of Religious and Pastoral Studies, she still keeps in touch with her mentor and continues research around social justice issues to “support, guide and  nourish those who find themselves incarcerated.

Lassiter believes that she positively influenced men’s lives through her ministry work and counseling.

Humbly, she says, “I don’t want to claim that I changed anyone’s life. It is just something I was called to do.”

September 29, 2012

Winfield House: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

At Winfield House this month and October, we are collecting new or gently used outer wear for men. Those items include: coats, vests, sweatshirts, gloves, hats, and boots.

To all of the knitters and crocheter’s out there, we need handmade scarves and hats. If you are inclined, blankets, too. All items are collected and given in love to the men who live under the bridges in Cincinnati.

Why?

Because they need you!

Have you ever driven a car and accidently lost control? It can be likened to the downward spiral of homelessness or poverty. Sometimes we are driving through life without a care, all of the sudden something comes at us, or perhaps we were not paying attention, and we need to move the wheel quickly to avoid an accident. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Life is that way, hard to predict. If, when driving, we are startled, we jerk the wheel, and over-correct ourselves, as our adrenaline is heightened; we either miss the object or we are hit from the oncoming car.

If we swerve and still hit the object, we are now off the road and perhaps in an undesirable position. The car is tilted to one side, half on rock and half in the dirt.  Last night’s rain has made the dirt mud, so our tires are quickly sinking. We are somewhat immobilized by the shock of the accident, wondering if we have killed a person or animal we hit. Afraid of the tilt of the car, we try to examine our options. There don’t seem to be very many. We try to call for help, but find we have no phone service.

Seeing that the tilt of the car could be dangerous, rather than abandon the vehicle, we try to restart and maneuver the car into a better position.  In doing so, we have now sunk the tires deeper into the mud. The spinning noise is bringing us to hopelessness, and we realize the vehicle is truly stuck.  To leave the vehicle may not be safe as we are in now unfamiliar territory. Worried about the other vehicle, we pray, try 911 again, and are wracked with fear.

It might occur to us to now look for our own wounds, as we feel a sharp pain in our side, and see the oozing of blood on our forehead. The dizziness of the whole event has now brought us to a paralyzed state. We need assistance!

So, it can be with life circumstances. We sometimes need assistance. Whether we are brought to a low place by another, our own decisions, or a pervasive lifestyle, we have spun out the tires in exhaustion and cannot find hope for our circumstance. There seems to be no one to help us dig out from the accident.

At Winfield House, we are dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty.

Poverty is defined as a state of mind or financial situation where there is lack to sustain life and/or a healthy emotional condition.

Anyone can be affected at any time of their lives by poverty. Either one is born into it, or somehow brought low by circumstance.

For 20 years, Winfield House has helped individuals and families strive to become independent, self-reliant, and successful in both public and personal life.

Here is a three-pronged approach to helping:

Dignity- helping with basic needs, food, clothing, and life-sustaining supplies.
Discipline-helping with life skills to help avoid future problems, and to create a new life.
Direction-spiritual help to bring richness to our souls.

Regarding the poor, I hear this all the time, “Why don’t they just get a job?”
In responding, I have to have as much mercy on the giver as the receiver. Understanding poverty and homelessness is not as easy as it seems. The dynamics are as diverse as the people. In the Bible, we are mandated to take care of the widows, orphans and the poor, so I am especially honored to be part of the restoration team.

Please open your hearts to our friends under the bridge. You, too, may swerve off the road one day and need assistance. You never know.

 
by Karyn Alexander

Voice of the Nations column for RED!
Executive Director, Winfieldhouse.org

Winfield House brings the good news of Jesus in a practical way, bringing hope to God’s people.
Voice of the Nations, Rev.5:19 “With your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe, language, and nation.”

September 29, 2012

The World Without Me – An Interview with Sherrie Kleinholz

The following exclusive interview with Sherrie Kleinholz, author and advocate for the homeless, appears on the eve of the publication of her first book, The World Without Me.  The book is an anthology of stories by homeless individuals in Greater Cincinnati, compiled and edited by Ms. Kleinholz over a number of years.

Interview by Jordan Bailey

RED! – What sparked your interest to begin researching such a major crisis in society today
such as homelessness?

S.K. – My interest in those who are without has been growing within me since my teenage years
and has peaked greatly in my adult years. I look around and I see so many beautiful
people who are disconsolate and suffering deeply with no one to help guide them
through it. I watch as there is no one sharing love with them and I am heartbroken.

RED! – Have you done any volunteer work – for instance, in shelters or in a food pantry – in
terms of assisting the homeless?  What were any of those experiences like and what are
some things you have learned being around them?

S.K. – I have worked at a homeless shelter doing counseling as part of my internship and this
has been very rewarding. It gave me a great sense of being a part of something so much
greater and my heart would be filled with a little more respect, humility, and love for
those I interacted with each time I left. I also enjoy making lunches to pass out to those
on the streets or take to the soup kitchen and have developed meaningful relationships
with these I interact with.

RED! – Tell us a little about your book and how it came about.

S.K.The World Without Me is a compilation of stories told by those who live them
every day. Stories about what it is like to be on the streets without your basic
needs readily available such as food, shelter, clean clothes, medical care, and
love. A great deal of the stories are written in dialogue form. This is done so that
the reader can get a better understanding of what the person being interviewed is
feeling, thinking and seeing from their perspective. The book came about because
it has been a part of my life for many years and to watch as others spit at,
degrade, and ridicule those who have to live it deeply saddens me. It saddens me
for the person on the street, as well as the person who is ridiculing and the world
as a whole.

RED! – You and RED! technical assistant, William Lambers, also a legendary advocate of
global food assistance, have worked together recently on issues of homelessness and
food advocacy. How successful have you been?

S.K. – I cannot say enough about William Lambers. What a kind hearted, giving, intelligent,
talented, and genuine man he is! My work with William began in my undergrad years at
Mount St. Joe when we held a fund raiser for international charities on hunger to which
was a success. He has also shown me how to help feed those who are hungry by playing
a game for free that donates rice for international hunger. We have also done an honorary
food drive in his mom’s name which helped three local pantries, and he has been a
profound help in the writing of this book. I’d be lost without him! I am quite certain that
we will be working together for a long time to come.

RED! – What kind of impact would you like your book to make?

S.K. – It is with my deepest hope that the stories inside this book grab the reader’s heart to help
them realize that the person behind the story is just like the person who is reading it.
They have feelings that hurt, thoughts that are important, needs to be met, & wants that
are forgotten. I hope that the reader can see that more often than not the person behind
the story had it all once and lost it because of reasons that could happen to anyone
including the person reading the book. These reasons consisting things such as physical
illness, death of a loved one, tragedy and mental illness. I want the reader to close the
book with tears in their eyes and love in their heart and realize that not every person on
the streets is trying to scam them and if they are trying to scam them to ask “why?” I
hope that the reader sees that person on the street are just people who are not lucky
enough to have the social support or means that others who are not on the streets have
had. If a person believes that it could not happen to them then they need to open their
eyes and see life for what it is. It can happen to anyone at any given moment and it can
break you.

RED! – What are some things you believe the city of Cincinnati, or the region on the whole, can
do to better address homelessness, especially as indicators suggest it is on the rise in
this particular U.S. economy?

S.K. – Sometimes when we look at a problem we feel alone and overwhelmed and we cut
ourselves off emotionally in order to protect our overall wellbeing. More often than not
we just don’t understand something and we fear what we do not understand. Therefore,
I encourage each person to educate themselves in understanding homelessness for what
it is.

Many times we create comforting self-soothing stories about those who are homeless
such as “they’re just lazy, a drug addict, and/or worthless criminals. I believe we do this
because we have to fill the void of “not knowing”. We simply cannot see a person who
is in need and drive by them because we would feel bad so we put a spin on our thinking
to justify driving by. Does this mean that the person on the street is not plagued by
mental illness, addiction, the loss of desire to help themselves, or is not a criminal?
Absolutely not!  However, keep in mind that inside each of us is our own personal evil
wolf lying in wait that could break free when pushed to our own thresholds. So maybe
ask yourself, “If this person really is one of those things then why and how did it come to
this and how can I help stop it or prevent it?” Remind yourself that you to could lose your
job have someone you love die and take your spirit with you, get a debilitating mental
illness, or lose your health and can’t work. You too could be pushed to your threshold
and wake up with nothing.

Therefore, to best address homelessness educate yourself to get a better understanding
of it, know it could happen to you, realize how powerful you are in the fight against it, and
advocate! As individuals we often do not understand how powerful we are. One person
can reach many people but they underestimate their own power and think to themselves,
“What I have to offer and contribute is not really making a difference.” That thought is
incorrect. Trust me; you are powerful in the lives of others. Inside each of us is a hero.