Posts tagged ‘Life’

March 3, 2013

My first time to prison

It was my first time in a prison. I had left my phone at the hotel and my driver’s license at the front desk.  (This left me feeling very helpless.)  We were walking down the hall, unsure of what it would be like.

And then I heard yelling… As we got closer, it got louder and there were flashing lights, and we realized that the yelling was cheering.  When we arrived at the door, the prisoners had formed a tunnel with their arms and we all ran through.  On the other side, they gave us big smiles and handshakes, welcoming us.  It was not what I expected.

We were visiting the Cleveland Correctional Center near Houston, Texas, where an initiative called the Prison Entrepreneurship Program operates.


This holistic program boasts that its admissions process is more competitive than Harvard’s, in terms of number of applications and acceptances.  The goal of the program is to help people help themselves, so the prisoners have to demonstrate their willingness to work and take initiative even to apply by studying for and getting a decent grade on a standardized test.

Those selected will get out of prison in three years or less, and must have a GED.  Their crimes can range from drugs to theft to murder, but PEP does not accept those who have been sexual predators. They must not be a member of a gang, have strong work ethic, and be willing to change.

One prisoner described his arrival at Cleveland Correctional Center.  He was shocked by the difference in culture.  The other prisoners tried to give him hugs, they welcomed him, and he was a bit taken aback. PEP intentionally creates this culture of joy and fun that is different from the regular prison culture.  They even come up with “sweet names” for each person involved, which add humor and fun, and take away some of the “tough guy” mentality.

PEP’s core program involves a “mini-MBA,” where prisoners gain business skills, create their own business plan for a business they can start after leaving prison, and get mentored by volunteers who are top executives.  It’s a lot of work, and it starts with a tough analysis of one’s past life and character.  PEP involves a spiritual change, where these men realize that they can do better and that they are worth it. They learn the ten core principles behind PEP, which include integrity, accountability, and fun.

On the day we visited, they had just finished putting a philanthropic aspect into their business plans.  One prisoner told me that he wanted to start a tire company in Dallas, and then become involved with an organization that helps poor kids get toys.  He also wanted to give to the cancer society because his family had been affected by cancer.

The program has given these men hope.  One man who spoke to the group had been in foster homes and was sexually molested as a child.  He had been involved with drugs, but had finally made a life for himself with honest work, a wife, and child.  But when his wife left him, he was devastated, and had a downward spiral back into the drug world.  Through PEP, he was given hope, and realized that his life was worth something.  He looks forward to getting back on his feet.

We also heard from a graduate of the previous PEP class, who plans to open a shoe shining business when he is released.  He pitched his business plan to us as if we were potential investors.  Each person who spoke, whether it was a prisoner, a staff member, or a PEP volunteer, received a standing ovation and cheering from all the men.

Several PEP graduates already have thriving businesses.  We heard from one graduate, James Cornish, who started a successful business hauling waste away from construction sites – Cornish Trucking.  His family had been involved in the trucking business, and he was excited to follow in their footsteps. People like him who are successful give hope to those who are currently in the program, and make them realize that this is really something possible for them.

When a prisoner completes the 6-month mini-MBA, they have a graduation ceremony, where they receive a certificate of completion, as well as a certificate from Baylor University.  Baylor was impressed with the rigor of the PEP curriculum, which includes college level material and projects, as well as Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  Many of the prisoners have never appeared in a cap and gown before.  PEP highly encourages family members to attend this ceremony.  For some, it is the first time they see their child.


Photo from PEP’s facebook

Upon release from prison, PEP encourages its graduates to live in its transitional housing to help him avoid falling back into his old ways. PEP also offers a business incubator with access to Quickbooks and the Internet, as well as access to continued mentorship.  In the future, the organization plans to broaden its support for its graduates and their businesses.

Having read their website and annual report, some aspects of what I saw did not surprise me. But one thing that impressed me was the sheer enthusiasm of the participants – it was contagious, and soon they had us all clapping, cheering, and even dancing.

I was also impressed with their eagerness to share their experiences.  It was almost as if they had been paid off by the PEP’s development guy. But no, they were genuinely sharing how the program had changed their lives, and how they were excited not only to have the skills to start their business, but to have achieved a character transformation with the support of their brothers and PEP team, and to contribute to the community in a positive way.

Finally, I was impressed by the central focus on character and spiritual transformation.  They call it “Cleveland Cardiac Center” instead of “Cleveland Correctional Center,” because the prisoners focus on changing from the inside out.

Prison Entrepreneurship Program 022713

With a PEP grad who now works for the program

July 27, 2011

DC Pools

I am a native Washingtonian – born at Howard University Hospital, raised on Van Ness Street… And somehow for all these years it escaped my attention that DC has free public pools.

We have free museums/zoo, free public pools, free tennis courts, free parks, free academic/policy lectures, free concerts, free food (at so many events around town!!)… It would only make sense that we also have free pools. For 24 years, I was blissfully ignorant of these free pools. But no longer.

Don’t expect these to pools to be country club style. Remember, just like DC public schools, these are overseen by the geniuses in the DC government. But still – they’re (relatively) nearby, easy to get to, and give you a convenient chance to have fun in the sun – the most important thing to do in the summer!!

Here’s more info.
I recommend the Volta pool!!

July 14, 2011


I think this whole thing springs from the fact that when finally, at the tender age of 11, I was allowed to stay home alone when mom ran errands, I was instructed NEVER to go to the door if someone knocked. To do so might result in my being kidnapped, mauled, or converted to Mormonism. Only scary people with horrible intentions would ever dare to knock on someone’s door when the mother and father of the household weren’t home, and if they looked harmless through the peephole, it was probably just because they were the front man for the serial killer hiding behind the front hedge. From my mom’s tone of voice I understood that this happened regularly to stupid children, and that she knew many unfortunate parents who had lost their little ones to the Front Door Monsters. At any event, the paranoia wormed its way into my brain, and to this day when I hear someone knock at the door and I’m not expecting it, my first instinct is to run to the bathroom and lock the door.

My fiance found this cute the first time it happened. We were in his apartment, hanging out and watching TV, when there was a knock-knock-knock on the door. I jumped up, ran into his bedroom, and peeked out, waiting for him to take care of it. The UPS guy had him sign for a package, and all was well. The second time it was a kid selling NFL cups for a school fundraiser. I didn’t know that, of course, and hid in the laundry room. After being cute-big-eyed into buying some cups, ChoiLoi told me I was a little bit weird.

Now he just thinks I’m crazy, but he’s slowly getting used to it. Today, the maintenance guys came by to check for bugs. We’re staying with awesome friends, but when you’re in a one-bedroom apartment, the hiding options are limited. What happens if they needed to check for bugs in the closet? There they’d find me, cowering in the dark, ipod in hand, ready to drop into the fetal position should they try to abduct me. “Oh, it’s OK,” I’d tell them, “There aren’t any bugs in here!”

Instead, I had to face them. There’s something eerie about people who you don’t know being in your living space, especially when they invite themselves. All the things that seems perfectly normal to you –the chinchilla in the kitchen, the two TVs, the giant cactus and disassembled hookah– are suddenly objects of attention and amazement. “Oh, yes, that is a chinchilla. He is cute. He does look like a squirrel-mouse. He does poop a lot.” I agree with everything they say. “I have noticed no bugs. I will let you know if I see anything. I do have your contact information.” I throw couch cushions back into place, fold up sleeping bags, try to make our “normal” look like everybody else’s.

The encounter, like every other one that I have experienced in my adulthood, ended normally, with the exterminators leaving having not exterminated a thing (not even me, mom!), but promising to do so should I ever need their services. I understand that the world is not actually out to get me, that there is not a serial killer hiding behind every front hedge, and that the pizza guy is not actually a kidnapper because I ORDERED THE PIZZA AND ASKED THEM TO COME FOR MY CONVENIENCE (as ChoiLoi points out each time). But there’s a certain comfort to having a bathroom door between you and the stranger in your house, a safety to it all that makes me grateful he doesn’t insist on making me get over my childhood fears. Maybe one day you’ll come visit…just make sure I’m not home alone, so someone will actually let you in.

July 14, 2011

New Beginnings

So we just signed a lease today for an awesome apt in DC!!!

Here’s to new beginnings!!

…And to pizza, brothers being in town, hookah, the fact that school is out… and a very exciting wedding in the near future!!

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