Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why Mentors Matter (Visit www.pfm.org to learn more)

Why Mentors Matter
Volunteer Dan Pearson on Filling the Father Gap for Ex-Prisoners

Alyson Quinn

Our Current Issue Includes:•Accountability: Helping Others Live Godly Lives

•Why Mentors Matter
•Unmasking Our Real Selves
View This Isssue“On Mother’s Day, there are tears shed at the prison. Father’s Day passes quietly. Most of these guys haven’t had a dad,” explains Dan Pearson, a Prison Fellowship volunteer and a 70-year-old grandfather from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Citing the absence of strong male role models in many prisoners’ pasts, Dan emphasizes the importance that mentors can have for their futures, especially upon release.

“I don’t think you and I can understand the pull of the world on these guys when they get out,” says Dan, “They are like children—giddy.” But after the thrill of freedom come the challenges of reintegration. Ex-prisoners can easily drift back to the places, friends, and habits that led to their incarceration.

Dan and Sondra PearsonThat’s when a mentor can make all the difference. “The recidivism rate is much lower for those who are Christians and have mentors,” Dan insists. Studies have linked involved mentors to significantly reduced rates of return to prison.

Mentors become even more important as states cut corrections budgets. In Michigan, where Dan has led in-prison Bible studies and mentored prisoners since 1996, the state Department of Corrections has decreased its inmate population by 6,500 since 2007, partially by increasing its parole approval rate. As more ex-prisoners reenter neighborhoods, “the answer,” says Dan,“is more mentors.”

“Whoa, I Think I’m a Mentor”
Dan’s path to long-term prisoner mentoring began when he met Prison Fellowship Founder Chuck Colson at a book signing.

When he first encountered the challenge to become involved in prison ministry, “it was love at first sight,” Dan recalls. He entered Prison Fellowship’s Volunteer-in-Prison (VIP) training in the spring of 1996 and soon entered prison for the first time at Deerfield Correctional Facility (ITF), a now-closed minimum-security prison in Ionia, Michigan.

Dan volunteered at Deerfield for 12 ½ years, but only after time, as men continued to call and write to him after their release, did Dan wake up one morning and say to himself, “Whoa, I think I’m a mentor.”

Dan’s mentor role has only increased. He and Sondra, his wife of 48 years, pray for 40 men released from Deerfield. They maintain contact with half of them, monitoring their tenuous progress on the path to a new life.

The Road to Reentry
“I need to find a job,” Dan’s mentees often tell him when they’re about to “ride out.”

“No, you don’t,” Dan responds, “You need to find a good church.”

Dan, a deacon at Heritage Baptist Church in Kentwood, Michigan, tries to first steer ex-offenders toward a healthy Christian fellowship—one that will embrace them and fit their needs—as a foundational step toward successful reentry. Through the church, ex-inmates can usually find jobs and eventually advance their education and careers. “Deacon Dan,” as he’s sometimes known to his mentees, practices what he preaches, introducing ex-prisoners to the pastor at his own church. Some attend services there and have even found employers and new mentors within the congregation.

But growth comes slowly.

A parole officer may call to say that one of Dan’s mentees is on the run. Or the mentees themselves may call with perplexing, or even “goofy,” questions. Dan remembers one ex-prisoner who planned to make a living shining shoes at a shopping center, failing to realize that in the 12 years since his incarceration, shoe-shine boys had become a thing of the past. But if tempted to impatience, Dan reminds himself, “They are asking you for help because they don’t have a dad.”

While he may not have all the answers to their problems, Dan offers his mentees the same vital lifeline any volunteer can offer: a listening ear, encouragement, and his faithful prayers in their behalf.

“We All Need Jesus”
Dan helps “his guys” learn to live and stay on the outside, but the process teaches him as much as it teaches them.

“As a volunteer, I’ve learned patience, understanding, and the importance of keeping myself in the Word. We all need Jesus, prayer, and the Word every day. If any mentor doesn’t stay strong spiritually, he will lose his desire to mentor, and eventually he’ll lose his effectiveness. The prisoners look to their mentor because they see something in them that they desire for their own lives.

“Honey, I’m Your Daddy”
With all his experience, Dan continues to grow as a volunteer. “As long as I’m a volunteer, I’ll keep learning,” he says. Part of his instruction comes from ongoing training through Prison Fellowship.

In 2009 Dan attended a Prison Fellowship conference at Calvin College that helped volunteers connect with other ministries to holistically address the needs of prisoners and their families. There, Dan encountered Forgiven Ministry, Inc., for the first time. On December 4, 2009, Forgiven Ministry and Prison Fellowship volunteers—including Dan—partnered to hold a One Day with God Camp at Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Center in Muskegon, Michigan. The warden and the chaplain selected 20 inmates to invite their children and their caregivers to come and spend a day of structured, spiritually based relationship building and fun with their fathers in the prison gymnasium.

“You can imagine the emotions,” says Dan, recalling the scene. “Thirty kids in that gym going to play with their fathers. But one little five-year-old girl just stood there on the side, watching. The volunteers urged her to go and find her father. But she couldn’t. She had never seen him before. Finally, a prisoner got down on one knee in front of her and said, ‘Honey, I’m your daddy.’”

Scenes like these encourage Dan to continue as a mentor. He’s spurring redeemed ex-prisoners on to rebuild their lives as responsible parents and members of the community, replacing cycles of alienation and despair with connection and hope.