Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

I love words, their power and their magic. In our prison classes, we have a vocabulary list to enhance the verbal acumen Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 4.24.03 PMof our students by using words like curmudgeon, voracious, hyperbole, myriad and gregarious. Their eyes light up when they “get it.”

I’ve been absent from my blog for awhile but words have brought me back today. I’m not a Mensa but I’m fortunate enough to have friends who are. They delight me with their brilliance, particularly their curiosity about everything. They love to explore knowledge, but when you’re that smart it also helps to be be funny or quirky or just plain irreverent so you don’t burn out.

Every year Mensa International  sends out an invitation inviting members to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. These are definitely worthy adding to our lexicon. They are wickedly clever and irreverent.  See if you can figure out the very slight but powerful change.

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Here are the winners:



1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Ignoranus: A person who’s both stupid and an asshole.

3. Intaxicaton: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

4. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

5. Bozone ( n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

6. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

7. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

8. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

9. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic Fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you’ve accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor ( n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you’re eating.

Mensa also publishes the winning submissions to its yearly contest, in which readers are asked to supply alternate meanings for common words.

And the winners are:

1. Coffee, n. The person upon whom one coughs.

2. Flabbergasted, adj. Appalled by discovering how much weight one has gained.

3. Abdicate, v. To give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.

4. Esplanade, v. To attempt an explanation while drunk.

5. Willy-nilly, adj. Impotent.

6. Negligent, adj. Absentmindedly answering the door when wearing only a nightgown.

7. Lymph, v. To walk with a lisp.

8. Gargoyle, n. Olive-flavoured mouthwash.

9. Flatulence, n. Emergency vehicle that picks up someone who has been run over by a steamroller.

10. Balderdash, n. A rapidly receding hairline.

11. Testicle, n. A humorous question on an exam.

12. Rectitude, n. The formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.

I think Webster’s should consider adding some of these. And, by the way, if you’re curious about Mensa, go to https://www.mensa.org

The New Year is fast approaching. Instead of a traditional resolution, why not resolve to increase your vocabulary. One excellent way is to Google crossword puzzles. All levels of sites will pop up with the power to take you around the world with words. This view of our world using words to define politics  is a brilliant example of word power.Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 4.30.08 PM


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Children's message

Children’s message

The United Universalist Church in Surprise is a very warm and open congregation with a strong social conscious. They just spent the month of January focused on the prison issue including the cost and conditions of prison. After they read my book , The Slumber Party From Hell, they honored me by inviting me to speak recently. Besides the sermon, I gave the message to the children. Now that’s a real challenge. How to talk to children about prison?  Sesame Street has the answer.  http://www.sesamestreet.org/parents/topicsandactivities/toolkits/incarceration

You may not know one in twenty eight children has a parent in prison so I felt this message was important. This is what I said:

“Any one here like Sesame Street? Recently Sesame Street got a new character to go with Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Elmo. That’s pretty exciting for Sesame Street. 

And it’s a pretty interesting character. His name is Alex. He has an orange face,  green nose and  really fantastic blue hair. He also feels sad and lonely and he doesn’t like to talk about why. 

Alex on Sesame Street

Alex on Sesame Street

Why is Alex sad and lonely? He’s sad because the other muppets want to do something with their dads and he can’t. His Dad isn’t there. When his friends ask where he is, he said he doesn’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t want to talk about it because his dad is in prison. 

Then one of the human friends says she understands because when she was little, her father was in prison too. That really surprised him. He was relieved to hear someone else had the same experience. It made him feel less strange and alone.

Prison can be pretty scary to children. Do you think you might know someone who has a parent in prison? I’m asking because 1 in 28 children has a parent in prison. That is a lot. So it’s possible there are some kids in your class who may feel sad because they have a mom or dad in prison. That’s hard. It’s a huge challenge for a kid. 

When you have a challenge and feel sad, you might feel like you’re all alone and no one understands. That’s hard too.  

So what can you do? Can you do anything? Yes, you can. You can be sympathetic. It’s a pretty big word but I’m  sure you understand it. If you see someone feeling sad and lonely, you can be sympathetic. You can understand. You can be nice to them. Don’t tease them. Don’t be mean. Be nice. 

At Gina’s Team, we have an important message, so important we put it on a bracelet. 

Been there. Done that. Now how can I help?  Helping others is really an important message and that’s what Jesus was talking about in the reading today  (Matt 25: 34-40). I’m going to give each of you a bracelet to remind you that YOU can help. Not just about the prison thing but about anything. YOU can help by being kind to people who are sad and feel lonely.

I promise, it won’t only make them feel better; it will make you feel better too.”

Remember that startling statistic?  One in 28 children has a parent in prison. That is so huge that Sesame Street felt it was important to  add Alex to this characters. However, it’s still controversial so Alex is not on the actual show; he is on the website at the link I’ve provided above. On that site, there are games and stories for children,  for the parent who is free and for care-givers like grandparents. Perhaps you are one of those parents or children. If so, you aren’t on an easy journey.  I personally know many of the women who are serving time. They miss their children dreadfully. If you are amongst that group of children or care-givers, I urge you to visit the website where I hope you will find some support  there.

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We just came back from a free movie celebrating Earth Day. The film we saw was Tapped about the global threat to our drinking water. Consider that we pay more per gallon for bottled water than gasoline and no one complains. Most of the water is just local tap water that has been filtered. Bottled water is now an $8 billion business. Wow. I urge you to take advantage of Free Movies celebrating Earth Day at Harkins 7, Scottsdale Fashion Square, Saturday and Sunday. There are plenty of seats. Take a friend or two. For more info, go to

Saturday (4/21) 6 pm If A Tree Falls.

7:30 pm: The End of The Line.

Sunday (4/22) 4 pm:  The Cove.

5:40 pm:  Food, Inc.

7:20 pm:  Sharkwater.

Just go to table in front of the movie and get free tickets. The movies are incredibly inspiring, very educational and there are no strings.
Then if you’re still curious, check out http://www.polarisinstitute.org

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You probably don’t think much of prison or prisoners. Can’t blame you. It’s not a happy thought. However, Fareed Zakaria recently wrote a column for TIME magazine called America – Incarceration Nation inspired by Rev Pat Robertson.  It has compelling stats on what it is costing us to incarcerate at a number far, far greater than our European cousins. He writes:

“The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That’s not just many more than in most other developed countries but seven to 10 times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97, and ­Britain—with a rate among the ­highest—has 153. Even developing countries that are well-known for their crime problems have a third of U.S. numbers. Mexico has 208 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, and Brazil has 242. As Robertson pointed out on his TV show, The 700 Club, “We here in America make up 5% of the world’s population but we make up 25% of the [world’s] jailed prisoners.”

I urge you to click on this link and read his column completely.  http://www.fareedzakaria.com/home/Articles/Entries/2012/3/25_Incarceration_Nation.html

It will give you lots to talk about at dinner.

  • Why do we incarcerate so many more people per capita?
  • What would happen if marijuana was legalized?
  • Who has the highest crime rate?
  • Why do we rank so low in education compared to other countries? “Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment to be released Tuesday show 15-year-old students in the U.S. performing about average in reading and science, and below average in math. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.”
  • What has education got to do with incarceration?

The cost of these numbers is high, not only in currency, but in human lives and ultimately in our society as a whole. The solution is not  “Soft on Crime” or “Tough on Crime.” We should be seeking ways to be “Smart on Crime.” It begins with the conversation and an increased awareness of the issues. I’m not telling you what to think; I’m asking you to think about the issue, perhaps for the first time.

Our organization, Gina’s Team, has a tag line: “Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention.” We bring educational programs behind the wires in Arizona to impact lives and help prepare them for release.

Perhaps you don’t know anyone behind the wires. You can still make a difference. If you have children or grandchildren, do all you can to encourage them to stay in school, improve their reading skills, set goals. This great gift that will also contribute to safer communities, save tax dollars, and make a positive difference. “Education, not incarceration.” That’s the key…inside and out.


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My mother instilled in me a love of books and writing when I was tiny. Mother said reading was the key to unlock a world of opportunities, dreams and imagination. My friend Isadora feels as I do. For nearly three years she has tirelessly trekked to Perryville prison for Gina’s Team to teach creative writing in eight week sessions.  She is making a tremendous difference in the lives of these women and we are incredibly grateful that she joined our  Team.

Here is the link to her most recent blog about her latest class. It is a powerful and compelling emotion to see the changes in these women.  You are giving them tools for life as well as hope. Thanks, Isadora.

Strong Women Blog

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These are the observations from one of our spring interns from ASU. Her analogy of Oz is very similar to mine of Wonderland.  I asked her if I could share it and she readily agreed. I’m very proud of her efforts.

Last Thursday Sue Ellen and I went on a whirlwind trip around Phoenix. In the early afternoon, we accompanied the 2009 Miss Black Arizona, Brittanee Perkins, to Adobe Mountain/Black Canyon Academy where she spoke to about 120 kids about her story, her life, and leadership and decision making in their own lives. Then we had a quick lunch, met up with the rest of GINA’s team at the Perryville Women’s Prison and completed the second session of this year’s ATHENA Lead From Within class. Then, for me, it was back to Tempe, back to the residence halls, back to work and back to homework like usual. The evening’s lesson plan in Perryville was “learn constantly.” So what did I learn? I wasn’t sure at first; the day was dizzying.

In the days since I can’t help but compare what I saw last week to a book many people will never read that was adapted into a movie most people have already seen: The Wizard of OZ. Being at Adobe Mountain/Black Canyon Academy felt like being in Munchkin Land, and not just because of the height of the people there. They didn’t break into song or dance but many of them were very excited to see Sue Ellen and Brittanee (I’m the Toto in this story). Many of them were eager and excited to hear what Brittanee had to say and were struck by her message that just because their parents went down a bad road, or because they may have started down that same road, doesn’t mean they have to keep going in that direction. She told them that they each have the power to turn themselves around and lead themselves someplace great in life. Many of them drank in that message and left happy. A few of them were unconvinced. “It’s so much easier to do illegal things” one young man said. Another added that “We just go right back into it” – “it” being the situation that got them to Adobe Mountain/Black Canyon in the first place.

The women at Perryville likely agree. I don’t think a single woman there would say that it is difficult to get into prison (at least as an inmate). What’s hard is learning how to turn themselves around and to find somewhere else in life to get to. That’s what the ATHENA class is for.

But it occurred to me, after spending a day with boys and girls and women who are involved in the justice system, that even before they’re placed under any form of supervision, many of them are in Oz and their one yellow-bricked road leads straight to and back to prison. It’s easy to get there. Just follow the yellow brick road, or tan brick, as it may be.

So what are we doing? What can be done? We’re already taking steps to help the people who have arrived in the Emerald – well, tan and orange – City. And now we’re starting programs to help the children who end up in Munchkin Land. But how do we keep people out of Oz? No more tornadoes? Only if you call the systematic and institutional neglect and abuse that often lands people in trouble a “storm.”

I don’t know who The Wicked Witch is, or who plays The Wizard in this story, but we all know for sure that’s not who to ask for answers because they won’t tell us the truth anyway. We should be asking ourselves how this happened and what can be done, and, most importantly, “How Can I Help?”

Ruby slippers

An original pair of ruby slippers used in The Wizard of Oz, on display at the Smithsonian Institution

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On March 18, 2009, I was released from prison. My friend Carolyn welcomed me back to the world and took me to Paradise to have my first meal. I stood with my mouth open, looking up at the menu with no idea what to choose. I was just determined to have something with tomatoes. Then Carolyn took me to the home of my friend Eleanore where I became a house guest until David was released and our life began again. I will never forget her kindness and generosity.  I am sure that she and her family gave us our life back.

Not everyone is so blessed. So many women get out of prison with no family or community support. Most places will not accept ex-felons as tenants. Most companies don’t want to hire you. And the economy isn’t the greatest, just in case you haven’t noticed. What a period of adjustment. There are so many choices out here. The best thing about prison is realizing I don’t need all that stuff to make me happy. Happiness comes in finding your purpose and living it. I found mine in prison and I am blessed to be able to serve the population I left  behind. Teaching classes in the prison and in the juvenile facilities we serve through Gina’s Team is the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

We didn’t celebrate yesterday. I was busy updating curriculum for our classes and writing mid-term evaluations for our interns. I guess tonight was our celebration. It’s the first night of one of my favorite shows, Dancing with the Stars. I confess, I love all those sequins, feathers, and spray tans. I love the color and joy of dance.  I love the fun of it all. Finally, David and I get to watch it together and we get to vote.

Life is precious and the simple pleasures are the best. We live in gratitude.

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My friend Isadora recently wrote a brilliant article about the purchasing power of women. Isadora is a thoughtful and compelling writer. I love her for many reasons. One is because she faithfully drives over 100 miles round trip to teach writing at the women’s prison for our organization, Gina’s Team. Over the last two and a half years, she has touched the lives of  many of the women inside with her talent and cheerful optimism. Her most recent blog will touch the lives of many women who are tired of being overlooked by corporations and Madison Avenue as the decision-makers and consumers of the day. Check out her statistics.  Please read her eloquent words and pass it on.  You won’t be sorry.


Laurinda, Renee, Peaches, Liz, Sue Ellen & Isadora

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I hope you are having a loving and meaningful holiday season. Gina’s Team has been wonderfully blessed to be able to share with the too often forgotten human beings languishing inside. We have sent about 200 Christmas cards to inmates and for the second year through the generosity of Logos Center, were able to gift the 112 girls at the juvenile facility we serve with their own stuffed animal. It’s an entirely new group of girls this year who echoed the words of the girls last Christmas. They told us they had never had their own stuffed animal in their life. In high school I told all my troubles to the stuffed animals on my bed. Didn’t you?  Wonderful what a simple stuffed animal can do.

Diane & Chris Panetta, Gina’s parents, at Mingus with the animals

We were blessed to gift them with such a simple thing. Christmas is all about the gift. I have had many gifts this year,  chiefly the gifts of human spirit. If I named every person who has been a part of the team this year, the list would stretch from here to Sedona. They know who they are. They are every volunteer who wanted to help, every girl in the juvenile facility, every woman in prison or jail, every person who shares our vision that everyone, inside or out, deserves a chance and “Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention.” They are blessed to be able to share and blessed to be in need.  There is a season for it all.

I’m late with this because my 5th surgery really did exhaust me and I am far behind. However, I wanted to share this “gift” with you. My darling friend, Renee Morgan Brooks, performs ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ better than anyone I have ever heard. Most people just sing the song. Renee takes you to the manger to be there with the family.  Even though Christmas is past, I urge you to give yourself a gift and listen to Renee’s gift of song.

Love and blessings to you all.

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When I was in prison, I was blessed to be the recipient of a very powerful newsletter called Freedom Inside, written and edited by Janine Cantin. It is a newsletter for prisoners based on the Conversations with God books. Later, upon my released, I was introduced to Janine by a mutual friend and asked to submit something for the newsletter. I wrote a few things that Janine kindly included. Then she asked if she could print Gina’s letter to a 15 year old friend. My dream and the dream of Gina’s parents is to have Gina’s letter read by every teenager in America and taken to heart, so I was delighted. For those of you who don’t know, Gina was my roommate in prison for a very brief and meaningful time. She was a beautiful, intelligent, curious, and delightful young woman who impacted my life in ways I could not imagine at the time.

This week the letters started trickling in. Six from New York, Wisconsin, California, Texas and Arizona. All from inmates who were somehow moved by Gina’s words. One man said, “I haven’t cried in five years, but Gina’s letter brought me to my knees.” Gina’s letter is in my book. It is also on the website. But those inmates letters made me realize I should reprint it here as well. Gina wrote that letter to the daughter of a friend of mine who had just turned 15. She wrote it from her heart and her words will never go out of date. I hope it will touch you, just as it has touched the hearts of others including the inmates who wrote from all the corners of this country.

Letter from Gina to a 15 year old friend.

Dear Friend,

I am writing to you to share my life story in hopes that it will help you in some way. I come from a good, Christian family who are working middle-class. I was never abused or neglected, unlike so many of the other girls here in prison. My parents worked hard and were very loving. Perhaps their only mistake was not enforcing real discipline upon me.

When I was 14, I had an older boyfriend. I got pregnant that year. I should have talked to my parents (or any other adult close to me) about what was going on in my life. They could have helped me and maybe I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant. Telling my parents that their baby was going to have a baby was frightening and shameful.

Once my son was born, I felt so out of place because I wasn’t a regular teenager any longer, nor was I an adult. I was 15 years old and I didn’t fit anywhere. I ended up marrying my boyfriend the next year, partly because I felt it was the right thing to do and partly because it was a way out of my parent’s house. The marriage didn’t last long because he wasn’t ready to grow up. I left him and found myself a single mom at 17. Unfortunately, I also found out I was pregnant again! Birth control, I discovered, isn’t foolproof.

I had an apartment and was working and I did manage to finish high school, but I couldn’t make enough to pay bills. I was too stubborn to go back to my parents’ house. I felt I had imposed on them enough. Besides, I was supposed to be a big girl, right? While my old friends went to parties and the prom and got ready for college, I had two babies to take care of. Those teenage years that I cheated myself out of can never be replaced. I’m just now realizing how important those years are to young people and how much of an impact it has had on me to have missed that experience.

Anyway, I was desperate to make it on my own. A “friend” suggested I could get a job as a dancer (stripper) to make enough money to live on. Finally I tried it and found it was degrading and yet exciting at the same time. The money was fast and easy. I got a big house, a new car, and did a lot of shopping! What I didn’t realize was the damage I was doing to my morals, my standards, my image, my self-esteem, not to mention the dangers of that environment. My intentions of going to college were forgotten. At this point, I was an 18 year-old single mother of two children whose future was being sacrificed by my chosen “career.”

It was during this same year that my now ex-husband got into a car accident because he was drinking and driving. It was devastating! He suffered massive head trauma. When I first saw him at the hospital, my knees buckled and I vomited.  His head looked broken and it was so swelled up. He had staples all over, holding him together. His eye socket bone was broken, his jaw was busted in several places and he was hooked up to so many machines. The doctors said he would most likely die within a few hours. Instead he survived, but for months he was in a coma. When he finally woke up, he didn’t recognize any of us. He couldn’t feed himself, couldn’t do anything. A full grown man in diapers. Over the next year, he learned how to do all those thing again, and one day I went to see him and he saw our baby daughter. There was recognition in his eyes. His memory came back more each day after that. Today he works full time, but he lives with his parents and probably always will. The girl who was in the car with him suffered a broken back and will never walk again. Such are the consequences of drinking and driving.

When I was 19, I met and married my second husband. Let warn you that people are not always what they appear to be. Anyway, for a short while our marriage was great. I quit dancing, got pregnant two more times and enjoyed life. Somewhere along the way, he and I started doing drugs. I used to think pot was no big deal, but the problem is that once you start smoking pot, you will surely find it acceptable to try other drugs. The very best advice I can give anyone is NEVER try dope. You’re not missing anything if you don’t ever get high. Trust me on this one! It starts out fun, but it will end up as pure misery. I got addicted like most people do. Being addicted to a drug is the most agonizing thing I’ve ever experienced. Addiction happens fast and it’s sneaky. You don’t even realize you’re addicted at first. I started doing more and more drugs. Eventually, I went back to dancing because supporting a habit is very expensive. Being an addict is like being in your own prison…the addiction keeps you prisoner. Drugs did not kill me, but they surely took my life. Addiction and criminal activity are a package deal.

To make the story of my crime a short one, let me just say I ended up on probation several times (it’s easier than you think to mess up) and I was in and out jail several times. Finally, I messed up for the last time and got sentenced to 3.5 years in prison. Custody of my first two children went to my first husband and his parents. My children from my second marriage are both now living with my parents. My second husband is still living the wrong kind of life and he can’t take care of our children, but I continue to pray for him. My children are now growing up without their mother and I am missing out on more than you can imagine. The children all complain about missing me and not a single hour goes by that I don’t ache to hold them.

Looking back, I realize that the choices I made at 14 affected the outcome of my entire life and the lives of my family. I didn’t realize it then, but the choices I made as young as 14 were vital ones. I was selfish not to see ahead of time that getting pregnant so young would affect that child’s life as well as mine. I was a good mother, but a lot of the time I felt as if I was just playing a role. Do you see what I mean? Until we’re full blown adults, we’re not equipped mentally or emotionally to handle having or raising a child. I think about all the babysitting and costs of the babies that were unfairly put on my parents, not to mention they are raising them altogether. Lesson: “The choices I make profoundly affect the lives of others.”

I didn’t have to teach myself how to become a drug addict, but teaching myself how not to be one is a long, hard process, one I may always battle. I am attending Rio Salado classes that are offered here at the prison. That’s the only good thing about this place. Most of the time I am locked in a small cell. There is no such thing as privacy. I wear the same uniform every day, eat the same nasty food, and the hours seem endless. My bed is a metal bunk with a worn out, skinny mattress. The guards are heartless, sometimes cruel, and so are most of the other female prisoners. I thank God for the few compassionate guards and for the few good friends I have.

I am isolated from the world and my family. I live life from behind a fence. The funny thing is, I feel free for the first time, free on the inside. Do you understand? I am one of the lucky ones who prison has affected in a positive way. I am stronger mentally, emotionally, and spiritually than I have ever been. This is rare though. Most of the girls here get caught up in prison life and never learn differently. And by the way, strip searches are as degrading and humiliating as the first time you have one, no matter how many you have.

I want to become a high school guidance counselor. I will have to finish earning my degree once I’m released from prison. Once again, I’ll be depending on my parents. My story and others like it don’t just happen to the poor, the abused, or the bad. It can happen to anyone. It’s all about choices. Please be careful to make the right ones, especially now at your young age.

I send this letter out with a prayer that touches you.


Gina Panetta                                            

Gina was 25 years old when she passed away on June 19, 2003, from acute leukemia, less than one year before being released from prison. Her one wish was that her family and friends would find the hope and peace she had found through her faith. May God bless you on your life’s journey.

Gina’s former husband, JR, passed away on September 2, 2011, leaving their children without either parent. Thankfully, they are surrounded by loving grandparents and family.

We pray that this message causes young people to think deeply about their actions and the consequences that have a never ending impact on our loved ones. 


In Gina’s memory, her parents and I founded Gina’s Team. We bring educational programs into our prisons and juvenile facilities because we know that “Education, not incarceration, is the cheapest form of crime prevention.”

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