Recently GINA’s Team participated in two significant events. I blogged about the reentry forum in my last post. The second event was a trip up to Prescott Valley for our monthly program at Mingus Mountain Academy, a level one juvenile facility for girls 12 to 18. Think of your younger sister and then imagine her as abused or an addict or sold into sex trafficking. These young girls have had unbelievably difficult lives. They are fortunate enough to be at Mingus for a chance to rebuild and start over.
Superwoman and GINA’s Team volunteer, Leah Heathcoat, plans a monthly program for the girls. It is always related to the creative side of the brain through art, poetry, drama, or creative writing. We’ve watched the girls blossom under these creative outlets. Their creativity coupled with an enthusiasm to rebuild shattered lives humbles us.
It’s the start of a new semester at ASU and GINA’s Team has new interns. Marissa has jumped in great enthusiasm and participated in both the Reentry Forum and the trip to Mingus. I asked Marissa to write her observations about what she saw through the two days of new experiences and her observations stunned me. At eighteen, she is our youngest intern. However, her keen insight and depth give her a maturity beyond her years. I asked her if I could share her work and with her approval, here it is.
“Last week, I began my internship with GINA’s Team, diving in with no idea what to expect. To say that those two days were a whirlwind of new ideas and experiences would be an understatement. As a biology major, I’m not usually exposed to the ‘human’ side of things, public policy, or the flaws and successes of the criminal justice system.
The first event was a forum on re-entry, which I had little to no knowledge about before I went. Needless to say, I was completely overwhelmed, but so incredibly enlightened about how severely this issue affects everyone of us, even more so the community of south Phoenix. Seeing the passion of some of the audience members that were brave enough (or fed-up enough with the way things were being run) made me realize how far we still have to come with the criminal justice system, and that this forum was definitely a step in the right direction. Also, how much a single voice in the community can make an impact. In a country where voter participation hasn’t exactly been noteworthy, it’s amazing to see how one voice in the room actually did make a difference. Raul Monreal, a director of South Mountain Community College, where the forum was held, spoke up about education being one of the best ways to reduce the crime rate and the likelihood of ex-felons returning to their previous life. He was upset that there were no educators on the panel that night, and that education had not been mentioned once.
Following this, another woman stood up to share her success at going back to school at 52 years old. She was frustrated that her sons, both in trouble with the law, were having a hard time going back to school and finding jobs. She feared how easy it would be to slip back into a life of crime, only now they would be tried as adults with more serious consequences. What most of my peers and even myself, hadn’t taken time to think about was that people like these boys weren’t bad people; they just might not have been able to seize an opportunity to be educated or go into the workforce as easily as in middle-class America. There was a lot to comprehend that night, but what stood out was what started with the dean speaking up about education. He sparked a wave of audience members speaking up for themselves, turning one voice into many, and giving them all a chance to speak up.
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”- John F Kennedy
Also at the forum that night was Franz Beasley who was able to turn his own life around and spread hope in a vivacious, confident attitude. You would have never imagined this man, dressed in a professional suit and radiating so much positive energy, had ever been in prison. But he was, and he had taken the steps to impact society with his success. He had risen above his environment and was standing in front of that crowd, giving everyone in the room hope that if they reached out to help, change was possible. If they were struggling, it was completely within their reach to rise above their mistakes and make a change within themselves, and continue that positive change through their community. His whole attitude and demeanor reminded me of the quote ”Because you are alive, everything is possible”- Thich Nhat Hanh
The following day, a group of five from GINA’s team drove up to Prescott for a day at Mingus Mountain Academy. I had heard a few things about what it would be like, that the girls would be happy to see everyone, that it would be inspirational, the usual bits and pieces you expect to hear from someone running the program. And as much as these things were true, I feel like I may have gotten something different out of the experience than most. As the youngest by a long shot, I wasn’t quite sure what to do to help so I wouldn’t just be in the way. I put on a smile and tried to jump on little things like unloading the car or untangling a cord.
Once we entered the gym and started getting situated, Sue Ellen took a few of us to meet with three girls who gave us a tour of the grounds and told us a little bit about what their daily life is like. All three of them (who were specially selected to provide the tour) were calm, but carried a sparkle in their eye of not mischief like you would think, being at a girls ‘detention’ facility, but a sparkle in their eye that they were turning their life around, and wanted to share it with us. It was a sparkle of complete gratitude for everything they were given in life. These girls didn’t take anything for granted, things that people in the ‘privileged middle-class America’ wouldn’t stop to be thankful for one minute of their life. All the while, during the time they were giving the tour, I couldn’t help thinking back to a letter a girl from the academy had written the team that I had read on the way up.
The girl who had written to the team had found herself a victim of sex trafficking after running away from home. On December 27, 2007, her world fell apart and on December 28, she turned herself into the police to escape a death threat. The same day I was celebrating my 16th birthday, with cake and balloons, and one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten: a tiny photo album with a picture from everyone at the party saying why we were friends. That day I received something to look back on to know I’ll always be loved. At exactly the same time, this girl was turning herself in for prostitution, the word ‘love’ most likely belonging only in fairy tales for her, and not a real life emotion. These girls’ pasts were anything but a silver platter of perfection.
These were the girls at Mingus. They had come from such hard backgrounds, but the ones I came in contact with had such a direction and dedication to get better and take advantage of all that life has to offer. They hung on every word of the presentation that day, and although they are still struggling with their lives, what it had been, what it was, and what it would be, they were normal teenage girls, just happy to simply be alive.
During the presentation, Vicki, an artist who draws portraits of survivors of abuse, explained to the girls the different types of abuse. This they all seemed to know very well. Then she asked the question, “So, what is an example of a person who has survived abuse?” Immediately, girls in the crowd were giving answers, but all of them the same, one word answer, the one word traveling throughout the gym in different voices, bouncing off the walls and coming back. The one word? “Me.”
I learned more in two days than I ever had in an entire semester of classes, but there is always more to be learned. Being so young, I don’t have all the knowledge or political background as some of the other members of the team, but in just those two short days, I realized more about the criminal justice system than I ever though possible, how far the system has come, how far it has to go, and how little organizations like GINA’s team are making a difference, day by day, step by step, person by person, planting the seeds of hope to change lives.”
Marissa has written a powerful story of her experience. Everyone has a story and the ability to use it to impact lives. Marissa is leaning and growing so that her life story will contribute to a better world. I am so proud of her and all of our interns and volunteers who spend precious time in a cause that is not popular but impacts us all. You have a voice and amazing power. What’s your story and how are you using it?