When I was in college, I was encouraged to do some volunteer work. I wanted to be a veterinarian, and was at college for the first step to that goal, working on a bachelor’s in biology. At a job fair I was told volunteering would look good on my vet school application, along with excellent grades. So I picked “Prison Ministry”. This involved going to the Men’s section in a prison in Gainesville every week, bringing them library books, talking to the men and generally just providing a regular visitor.
This picture shows what it looked like, except the guys I visited were not in chains.
One day while I was talking with them, bantering back and forth, I noticed they kept giving me strange looks. They were in a type of common area with about 20 men inside a larger cell, and I was talking from outside the bars. At one point I noticed a couple of them looking back towards the rear of the cell and then back at me. So I looked back where they were looking and oh my gosh! There was a toilet in plain sight and a guy was sitting on it doing his business, looking a bit embarrassed. I let out a little yip and quickly turned my back and said, “I have to go now, see you next time.” As I walked out without looking back I could hear them laughing.
Another time, I assumed one of the prisoners was joking around when he said he was going to escape that weekend, and would it be okay if he came and hid in my house? I said sure, continuing the joking, and offered to hide him in my closet.
The next Monday, when I went in to the prison, they told me that guy had escaped! I was petrified to hear this! In retrospect maybe it was just his time to get out because I didn’t hear anything about an escaped prisoner on the news. But his fellow prisoners also said he escaped.
Even though he never appeared to take me up on my closet offer, I promptly decided to stop the Prison Ministry Instead, I switched to volunteering at the research farm, where I was able to help care for the animals. This was a lot more fun than the prison ministry and gave me experience in line with my goal of becoming a veterinarian. I never did go to Vet school – my grades weren’t good enough, but still the volunteer experience was valuable to me.
LESSON LEARNED: Don’t hang around prisoners unless you really feel called to be their friend.
LESSON LEARNED: There are more than enough deserving opportunities that need volunteer help. If you feel uncomfortable at one, don’t give up — the next may prove to be your sweet spot!
LESSON LEARNED: Although there are always a few bad apples, most people appreciate an honest effort. Even though I was in over my head, those prisoners were nice to me.
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