“When do you have the right to give up on anybody?” Pastor Lee asked wearing his velvet blazer and black and white polished shoes. He attended our first ever family visit day at Lowell Correctional Annex in Ocala, FL. He spoke with relaxed authority to all of our graduates and their family members.
His daughter Athena took the mic with her skinny frame and big smile. She let the audience know that her parents had created a solid upbringing for her – yet she chose to leave.
She stumbled on her words, “When I left the foundation of my parent’s care and home –- I fell.” The DTBF graduates listening to her shouted out, “Don’t cry” – maybe from their own fear and hurt.
Athena was convicted and sent to prison when her son was 9 months old; he is now 12. She went on as her son and parents sat in the audience, “Accident or not, I took my son’s father away from him.”
Then Vicki, a stunning black woman who is serving a life sentence, took the mic and described her past with simple clarity: “To say I was an alcoholic is too soft a word. I drank all night and slept all day. I wasn’t even getting drunk anymore. Now I see that I am a leader and you can’t use my moves to tell your story.”
Each woman voluntarily stepped up, thanked their family, the staff and DTBF. There was hope and acceptance in the room despite the depressing reality of where we were. I felt for those students who didn’t have family show up or couldn’t make it. I could feel the weight of failed dreams and deep loss floating in the air under the neon lights and stark surroundings – yet, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
Then there was Darlene who walked in the first day with her clipped gray hair, blue eyes and creased smile lines. After playfully pounding our chests to Nicki Minaj – she said: “I felt like my heart just exploded open as if confetti poured out of me.” She was a tough looking, lesbian who has been “down” for 31 years for first degree murder.
Despite her defended looking body language and rugged veneer, she melted your heart in seconds. She had a childlike honesty that poured out of her blue eyes as she came up to me and said, “You know, I’m really just a ham.” How does someone keep that part of themselves alive after being down for 31 years?!
On day 3, I put on a video with Gabor Mate (Canadian Physician specializing in human development and trauma) where he explains, “We shouldn’t be asking what is wrong with the addiction but rather what is right about the addiction. We should be asking ‘Why the pain?'”
After watching Mate speak on the real root of addiction Darlene said, “I wish I had been taught this a long time ago – I feel angry.” Who knows what happened to Darlene that led her towards prostitution and then murder – but we can bet she was sexually and/or physically abused.
Some women have facial hair while most have tattoos on their necks, arms and legs. Some are trying to get it right, while others sort of come in and out and linger on the perimeter of the group. Some move with full passion while others look like they are in a fog and can barely straighten their arms when asked to – each woman expressing themselves as fully as they are able to do so in the moment.
All I know is that I have not only lived a life full of privilege – but I have had a ton of luck. My parents are still married, I was never hungry growing up, I was never sexually or physically abused, I grew up dancing and managed not to hate my body, I have my health and an education. And life can still be hard.
I can’t begin to fathom what my students have endured and yet, they have access to that inner spark like Athena, Vicki and Darlene.
Despite the fact that Pastor Lee has raised his daughter’s son while she was in prison for over a decade, and can still ask such a profound question with so much faith in his voice – is what true freedom looks like.