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Lessons for life

Crestline, Calif., church runs literacy program for inmates nearing release

August 24, 2009

Chris Hamann, Nancy Laughlin, Shirley DuRant, Norah Casner and Jan McMurtry

Once a week, the five volunteers of the Pilot Rock Literacy Program tutor inmates nearing release. From left to right: Chris Hamann, Nancy Laughlin, Shirley DuRant, Norah Casner and Jan McMurtry. —Community Presbyterian Church.

Statesville, N.C.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter

Sometimes serving the community means getting outside of one’s comfort zone. Sometimes when people do this, they are surprised to find out that what seemed daunting or intimidating might be something else entirely.

Five members of Community Presbyterian Church in Crestline, Calif., found this out firsthand when they took on a surprising community project. 

In addition to the church — which has about 40 members — the Crestline area is home to the Pilot Rock Conservation Camp, a California Department of Corrections facility that houses nonviolent inmates who are nearing the end of what may be lengthy prison sentences and have earned the right to be housed in what is known as an honor camp.

Primarily drug or alcohol offenders, these inmates have already served the majority of their sentences elsewhere and are nearing their release date or will soon be eligible for parole. Pilot Rock is an honor facility in that there are no bars and inmates have the freedom to move around the facility.

Nancy Laughlin, Mission and Stewardship chairwoman, and Jan McMurtry, a member of Community who had been involved in adult literacy programs, began to think about the men at Pilot Rock and what they might be able to do to help them.   

“Sometimes people make bad choices because they don’t have the life skills and knowledge that they need to do the right things,” said McMurtry. 

Laughlin and McMurtry approached the lieutenant in charge of the Pilot Rock camp with the idea of creating a literacy program for prisoners. The lieutenant, in favor of rehabilitation of inmates, responded favorably and shared the idea with the inmates to gauge interest. Within hours of their meeting, the lieutenant contacted the women to tell them he already had three men interested in the program.

“All of our churches are doing things,” said Anita Hendrix of the Presbytery of Riverside. “But this is just so beyond the normal things. It’s so unique and unusual and it shows what even a small church can do. For a tiny church, they are very involved and faithful.”

McMurtry echoed this sentiment.

“We’re small, but we are a very active and healthy congregation,” she said. “We were looking for something feasible for a small church to handle, and the Pilot Rock program seemed like a good fit for us.”

Five volunteers were secured from the church and were trained by McMurtry, who already had tutor training from her other adult literacy work. What is perhaps surprising is that all of the volunteers were older women, the last people most might expect to be interested in going into a prison to work with inmates of mixed backgrounds.

The program began in January. Each Monday night, the women carpool to the camp and meet with the men participating in the program from 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m. They primarily help with reading skills, but can also help with written language and math skills to accommodate men who are working on GED requirements.

Three men showed up for the first session for reading assistance, but word spread and McMurtry said that they have since worked with 14 or 15 of the 85 men housed at the facility. Volunteers expect that number will continue to grow as their students spread the word. If the program continues to expand, the church might seek additional volunteers to help tutor.

While the men at Pilot Rock have benefitted, the women of Community Presbyterian Church have as well. They’ve found the inmates at Pilot Rock to be courteous, cooperative and always willing to learn. They are eager, focused, attentive and excited by their accomplishments, as are the ladies that helped them learn. The ladies note that the men have all responded positively to working with “strangers” who care about them. 

It’s this positive effect that persuaded the ladies to expand their work to include the families of the men. 

“When someone goes to prison, it doesn’t just affect them,” McMurtry said. “There is a family that is affected as well. There are wives and children that often have to cope with the situation too and we wanted to do something positive for them as well.” 

The volunteers worked with Pilot Rock personnel to provide family activities on special occasions; the first of these was on Easter. The church sponsored a Sunday afternoon of family time including egg hunts, cookie decorating and a visit from the Easter bunny. This month the volunteers will host their second event, a Back to School Family Celebration of Education, during which they plan to provide school supplies for each school-age child of the inmates. 

To the ladies working with the Pilot Rock Literacy Program, it seemed like a simple community project that was feasible for their small church. To everyone else — including their students — it seemed surprising that this group would show so much care and compassion to a group that most people, especially older women, would just as soon avoid.

Yet it’s the ladies of the Pilot Rock program who feel the most blessed.

“We take away twice as much as we give,” said McMurtry. “We feel so good about what they give to us.”

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church.

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