All the loved ones have gathered. The commencement speakers have taken their seats. And, “Pomp and Circumstance,” the orchestral music synonymous with this event, has just started playing.
The graduates begin their march, none of them fresh-faced or wet behind the ears. None of them donning caps or gowns. All of them in a place they never imagined a week ago.
It’s that time of year, when we sit through one too many long-winded speeches, clap our hands and click our cameras as deans hand out diplomas. And then we forget about it the minute we place our orders at the Cheesecake Factory.
This wasn’t one of those graduations.
After watching 27 Hope for Prisoner graduates complete an intense prevocational leadership workshop, designed to help them re-enter the workforce and never re-offend, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I witnessed. Andrew Brown’s tears of joy, Jeremy Watson’s decision to love his family more than his “homeboys,” grown men and women feeling first-time confidence.
It left me inspired and, not just rooting for their success but dissecting the very meaning of it.
None of this happened when I personally moved my high school and college tassels from right to left. But, like I said, this wasn’t one of those graduations.
Oscar Goodman wasn’t there, regaling students with his many movie cameos. Jimmy Kimmel wasn’t joking his way to an honorary doctorate.
There was, however, a representative from Congressman Joe Heck’s office, urging the former inmates to understand they are not their past. There was also a police officer on hand, leading an oath that began, “From this day forward, I will strive to be a productive, law-abiding member of my community.”
Accomplishing that alone would qualify as a success story for many of these graduates. Success, after all, is about completing goals. And goals aren’t birthed without the ability to welcome tomorrow.
Hope for Prisoners CEO Jon Ponder put it best when addressing his graduates. Hope is lost, he told them, when we can no longer fathom a future for ourselves.
Years spent locked up can have that effect. Hope for Prisoners instills in its trainees that hopelessness is a cesspool of lies we tell ourselves. Once we start believing in ourselves, we can see our futures.
In an exercise called Vivid Vision, each former inmate wrote a letter dated May 24, 2014, exactly one year from the day they graduated the Hope for Prisoners program, detailing all they plan to achieve in the next 365 days. The finish line revealed just how low the starting point was.
Sean O’Flaherty read his aloud, from a piece of paper he gripped with shaking hands. He spoke of sobriety, fitness, and starting a relationship purely for love, not drugs.
“It feels so good,” he says as his future self, “to be a man again.”
The next step of the program is an 18-month mentorship, in which trainees will work closely with volunteers who demonstrate the productivity for which they strive. All while turning in five job applications daily.
As the ceremony ends, reaching the point where traditional graduations rain tasseled caps, Andrew Brown wipes tears. The last time he felt this happy was the day his daughter Kenya was born. That was 14 years ago.
He’s been out of prison and on the streets 12 years, plagued by his felony record. Brown just came to Hope for Prisoners to find a job, but he says, he ended up finding himself.
“I’m a man with dreams,” he proclaims, “for a second chance at life.”
For more information about Hope for Prisoners, call 586-1371 or log onto hopeforprisoners.org.
Contact Xazmin Garza at email@example.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.