Story and photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR PIO II
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Standing outside a Vacaville prison, Pastor Raymond Beaty had to take a moment to let what he had just witnessed set in.
For an entire morning, he had watched men incarcerated at California State Prison-Solano (SOL) donate box after box, can after can, bottle after bottle of food and hygiene items to people in need. These men, most of whom make at most $20 per month, gave not only their own purchased items, but also handcrafted works of art and $1,864 in monetary donations made a dollar or two at a time.
“The weight of the sacrifice is a little hard to process,” Beaty said.
“I asked a couple of the men, and one of them said, ‘Look. We’ve taken so much. It’s just time for us to give back.’”
And give back they did. The men of Beyond Ordinary Life Doings (BOLD), a self-help program at SOL, spent the morning collecting, sorting and packing up donations to The Father’s House church, which runs the Vacaville Storehouse. Through the Storehouse, The Father’s House provides free food and necessary personal care items to people in need in the Vacaville community. The Storehouse serves more than 20,000 people in need every month.
“This is rehabilitation,” said Simeon Sami, a BOLD member who helped organize that donation drive. “We want to be part of society once again. One of the greatest things to do is not to live for ourselves, but to live for somebody else. By giving back, we are showing that we want to be part of the community – not only our community in here, but the community out there.”
Sami emphasized BOLD’s gratitude to the SOL administration, including Warden (A) Robert Neuschmid, for supporting not only BOLD, but also numerous programs at SOL, including the upcoming Flame of Hope Torch Run for Special Olympics. Last year men incarcerated at SOL ran a symbolic torch in support of Special Olympics of Northern California, raising $5,600 for the cause. This year their goal is $10,000, and they’ll be joined on the yard by staff and Special Olympics athletes for the run.
Capt. Marlaina Dernoncourt is all in for rehabilitative programs, including founding BOLD with a group of incarcerated men looking to give back. BOLD, she explained, “is just a group of ordinary people, inmates and staff, who are trying to do the extraordinary.”
Members work together to give back to the community inside and outside prison walls, and invite guests to the prison to share how they can help change the world. One of those recent guests was Beaty, who came to the prison to share the vision of The Father’s House We Love Our City initiative to help people in need through community service, food donations, and graffiti abatement, and about the programs at neighboring California Medical Facility (CMF). CMF has become a campus of The Father’s House, where in addition to a regular church service, facilitators also run a substance abuse recovery program, financial literacy education, and a restorative justice program that enables men to take responsibility for and realize the impact of their crimes and past behavior. Beaty hopes to expand those services to SOL.
It was in building We Love Our City’s 15 outreach programs, Beaty said, that The Father’s House began working inside CMF and now SOL.
“We wanted to make sure we were helping everyone who lives in our city,” he said. “And one day, we realized, yes, we’re feeding everybody, we have a school program, but there are two prisons in our city. How could we not do anything at two prisons in our city if we say we love our city?”
The idea for the donation event was born out of Beaty’s first visit to SOL, and within a few weeks the prison was abuzz with excitement for the event, and information about how to donate spread throughout the yards. While many prisons hold food sales where people can buy outside food, like McDonald’s or Subway, and donate proceeds to charity, this is the first time any of the people involved with BOLD had heard of people in prison making traditional donations with no expectation of anything in return.
“When you think about the average inmate, and how many hours they have to work to buy a can of tuna, and then give it back – to one person it’s one can of tuna, but to them it’s much more than that,” said Correctional Counselor III Kimberly Chu. “And not only that, it has a much bigger meaning to them.”
To watch the men happily give, Dernoncourt agreed, shows they are getting just as much out of the selfless act as they put in.
“I know that the impact to the community is great, but there is an impact here in what the men are feeling by giving, selflessly giving, without getting anything in return. They’re not getting credits for this; they’re not getting anything back other than the satisfaction of donating.”
Items poured in from throughout the prison, with a donation cart even being brought over from men on the higher-security Level III yard. Every time someone brought in a donation, no matter how large or small, he was greeted with intense cheers from everybody in the gym.
One of the loudest cheers was for Kenneth Trask, as he dropped off his fourth bag full of ramen noodles and other food items. In an illustration of the event bringing together different faiths, Trask said most of the donations he brought in came from his Muslim friends, who also felt the call to give.
“I can be very persuasive,” Trask laughed. “I mean, I want to help people. That’s what I want to do when I get out – when I think that there are people out there who can’t eat, that’s touching to me.”
Dion Wheelwright, rocking out to music while sorting donations, said while he was proud of the turnout, he expects BOLD to gather even more items next time. He pointed out how even men who didn’t have the means to donate food, hygiene items or money gave of their time and talent to create afghans, jewelry and artwork. Cotton Jones, a noted SOL artist, spent the morning creating a painting of the Vacaville Storehouse that he donated to the cause the same day.
“The blankets, the quilts and everything – those take hours,” Wheelwright said. “I’ve seen dudes work on one of those for like six months, just sitting down and knitting or crocheting. That’s big, too. Those are really cherished items because of the time and effort.”
As the day wound down, Sami pointed out that for many of the men, this is a way to demonstrate their journey of positive change and pay forward the opportunities they have been given.
“A lot of people who are in this community used to be homeless, too,” he said, gesturing to the crowd of people sorting food and dropping off donations. “They remember when somebody gave them something to eat when they were out there. They understand what it means to be able to give back to somebody else who is in need now.
“Yes, we’re in here, but you know what? We understand what giving is to us. We’ve been offered a second chance in life, too. We want to take that second chance and touch somebody else’s life.”