Somehow, mixed with misery, I felt an urge to help others. I decided to find a volunteer opportunity and revive serving others again in my life. Still resistant to anything affiliated with religion, I began searching websites and classified ads.
Almost right away, I found an organization, The Children’s Literacy Network, that takes children’s books into prisons and provides an opportunity for incarcerated dads to read to their kids. Each father picks out a book for his child and is recorded reading it. The recordings are then burned to a CD and shipped to the children, along with the book and decorated cards. The cards are adorned by the dads with stickers: little hearts, footballs, stars and smiley faces. Magic markers color the written messages.
I had absolutely no intention of volunteering in prison (the thought never entered my mind, or heart), but when I ran across this advertisement, astonishment tingled down my spine. It was uncanny to find something that so perfectly combined my passions.
My incarcerated father is illiterate.
He did his best to read to me as a baby. But then the reading faded. I didn’t know about his reading struggles until about the 3rd grade. I can remember asking for help with homework. That’s when he began to deflect anything to do with reading. He said that he would help with math and that mom would help with English.
At first I didn’t think much of it. But then I began to understand what was going on. From that point forward, I was careful of anything to do with reading. I didn’t want to embarrass him. I respected him in that way.
I was struck by the ad staring at me. I couldn’t refuse the fact that helping kids learn to read and connect to their dads would be the absolute best way for me to volunteer. Then I read one incarcerated dad’s testimonial: “I love this program and I think this has been so instrumental in mending my brokenness and loneliness my children have felt in my absence.” 3
Stepping out of my comfort zone, I called and interviewed with the Director. I hate talking on the phone. I was terribly nervous. It must have come through in my voice. I stumbled through the conversation. When I hung up, I was disappointed in myself, disappointed I didn’t say anything about my dad… But I had never told anyone before (other than a few of my closest friends). His incarceration was a secret I had kept for ten years. I doubted that I would get the position.
The following day, an email arrived: I got the job!
The first thing I did was attend training. I was excited but apprehensive. We met in a conference room. There were about ten of us, including the Director.
The meeting started off with brief introductions and an overview of the materials. The mood was light, yet meaningful. There was both laughter and richness. That was refreshing and new.
About twenty minutes into the meeting, one mentor made a helpful comment concerning what it’s like the first day volunteering in prison. Then, reflecting back on her first day, for some reason, she explained why she began volunteering.
This seemed to set something into motion. The volunteer to her left, shared, then the next. One-by-one, they told their stories. I could see what was happening. They were going to go all the way around the room until everyone participated.
Closer and closer it came to me. I counted four people before it was my turn. I gasped for air. I became severely anxious.
There was no way out. I had to say something. I debated with myself, “Do I tell the whole story, or do I carefully leave out the most significant part?” No one knew about my dad.
“Would the Director be upset at me for concealing my life? Would she be disappointed?” I pondered.
The seconds didn’t slow. I decided to tell the story, the story I had kept hidden from my world.
It became my turn. I didn’t look up at anyone. I squeezed my hands, took a deep breath, looked down on the floor—for the sake of concentration on composure—and step-by-step told the story.
I started with my own children, explaining that, “Books and reading are at the very center of our family; we are a close reading family. In our earliest family videos you will find our children flipping pages while sitting in our laps. It’s our tradition to visit bookstores and libraries. My wife and I never turn down buying a book for our kids, or the opportunity to lounge in bookstore cafes.”
“We read books; books change you. There is a quote ‘Men are made by books rather than books by men.’ 4 You can’t stop yourself from being changed when you read a book, they alter your person even if little-by little…but as powerful as books are, they cannot make you happy….”
This is when tears began to flow.
From this moment forward, I focused, not on being articulate, or putting together sentences, but merely on getting this thing out of me, out of me without absolutely crumbling to a stop.
“I value reading so dearly, so passionately…because I have a family history of illiteracy.” I went on, “My father is illiterate; my grandfather is illiterate. Not only is my father illiterate,” my voice cracked as I heard my words, “he is also incarcerated.”
I continued a few more sentences. I stumbled over every word. Tears fell at their desired pace. I barely made it to the end.
Finally, I stopped. Pure silence. Everyone was visibly affected by the story. I’ll never forget their faces.
At the end of the meeting, the Director and volunteers gathered around, encouraging me, and thanking me for sharing. One volunteer, a local professor who dedicated her life to mentoring young prisoners, hugged me. She expressed how thankful she was to hear the story and said how powerfully it touched her. I thanked her for her grace, explained it was a hard story to tell, and that was the first time I ever shared the account, all I could do was get it out of me and stagger though it. She shook her head, touched me on the shoulder, and reiterated her words. It seemed like she wanted me to know something else.
I felt like I was beginning to see something when another person whom I had gotten to know joined our conversation, she also embraced me. She thanked me for sharing and tenderly said, “I wondered if there was something more to you.”
She smiled warmly, paused, putting together her words, “There is more to me too. Someone in my family is also incarcerated.”
At that moment, my eyes opened. For the first time, I saw that the very evil done to me could actually be turned to good. It all came down to a choice, and in that choice, either evil continues, or goodness comes into existence. It was all up to what I did with it. I had the power, by a mere decision, to control how my dad’s incarceration affected my life.
And I didn’t realize that that change had already occurred. I was unaware of what happened inside. I didn’t comprehend that, when I squeezed my hands and stumbled through the story, I was actually making a choice, the first choice to create good and to resist evil.
Though I was too weak for that to be a deliberate decision, those stumbling words began reversing the evil in my life. Before I understood the consequence of that choice, the evidence of good was seen on the faces of those who listened. I could not refute that when I looked up.
**From the book: Opening Happiness