Excuse me, are you Listening? 7-9
Monday, May 26, 2008

Dear Readers,

Last year I came up with an idea to do a book drive for the prisoners in conjunction with Capital City Community Action Network (CCCAN).  During that book drive, we collected 5,000 books for the Michigan prison system and others nationwide.

I want you to understand that helping your community doesn't always mean you have to have a check in hand.  You can volunteer time or resources to give back to the community.  Or quite possibly all you have to do is ask for what you need.

It has been a very blessed time in my life and wouldn’t want to change anything because my experiences make up who I’m today.  A friend of mine and I were talking about some local organizations and how they spend a lot of money on balls and parties but don’t give back to the community like they should.

I didn't have an idea about the Michigan prison system.  I met a man named Len Hill from Mount Hope Prison Ministries and he invited me to visit Mount Hope Church to find out some more information about their programs.  

The day that I went to visit, I was so ill that I was going to cancel.  Something in me just wouldn't allow me to cancel the meeting.  So I went and I was there for about an hour talking to Mr. Hill about the needs of the prison community that he serves.  He explained so many programs.  I thought to myself, “How am I to help everyone?”  As my head started to spin, I could only collect brief glimpses of his conversation.  The church was looking for singing groups to perform in the prison.  The church was looking for people to help with providing and handing out gifts to children of the incarcerated.  The church was looking for so much and I couldn't see beyond the wild pounding of my forehead. 

At the end of the conversation, it was time for me to take a tour of the church.  Mount Hope is a huge church and has many different dynamics to it.  The prison ministry was just one.  I didn't know any one who was imprisoned in Michigan.  My experience was quite limited and couldn't begin to understand why I was even there.  Nothing was clicking with me. 

The last room that we came to was the “Book Room”.  Len began to clearly explain that this was the room where they collected books for the prisoners.  I looked at the shelves and they were mostly empty.  My brain slowly started to process why I was there as I envisioned the shelves being filled with books to disburse to the prisoners.  I envisioned prisoners reading for the first time to their children over the telephone.

My headache disappated and I finally began to understand why I was there.  My journey to Mount Hope was to help with the collection of books.  Mount Hope would disburse them and check them for possible contraband.  Little did I know that I was about to embark on one of the best experiences of my life.  I'm  still living it every day.

Susan Vela, a talented reporter from the Lansing State Journal called to see what CCCAN was doing.  I advised her that we were doing a book drive for the prisons through Mount Hope Church. 

Vela did a story and sent a photographer out to take a picture for the piece.  I had just finished having eye surgery and wasn't feeling too well but nevertheless agreed to have the picture taken.

Soon after the article came out there were books pouring out of every corner of the county.  Our book collection almost touched the ceiling of my office.

Pastor Walter Gibson of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church and his wife Tarsha along with one of their sons, helped load the books into the vans that Len Hill and his Mount Hope Prison Ministries volunteers brought along for the task.

I was pleased to have all of the books out of my office and on their way to Mount Hope to be disbursed to prisons all over the country.

One of our largest contributors was the Capital Area District Library.  We were grateful for the donation of books during their weeding process to rid the shelves of books that were too old or too worn.  The children's books would become our most useful books.

Len Hill said, “We ask permission from the chaplains to send a box of children's books to be placed in the visitation room at a facility.  Children get them and have something constructive to do while the visitation takes place with family or friends of families.  It creates communication between child and adult.”

Several months ago, I began corresponding with Daryl Parker, who is the President of the National Lifers of America at Michigan Reformatory in Ionia.  In his letters, he wrote about the book drive and how he and his other fellow prisoners appreciated the work I did in the community.  Interestingly enough, I feel as though it is my duty to do good work in the community.  It's about businesses and individuals working to together to help those most in need. 

He saw the article in the Lansing State Journal and wanted to get more information about the newspaper. We began correseponding.

I inquired about the National Lifers of America, Inc.   It's a group of Michigan prisoners, whose purpose is to work towards affecting changes in the state laws that govern First and Second Degree lifers, and those prisoners serving long and indeterminate sentences.

They do a lot of interesting work for others inside the prison walls.  In 2007, they undertook a writing campaign, which assisted Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in expressing public support for the Michigan Prisoner Re-entry Initiative (MPRI).  In the campaign, family members and friends of prisoners were asked to sign a statement of support and mail it to FAMM. 

They  also educate their fellow prisoners through educating them through a Creative Writing class and a General Math class. 
On of the most important community service activities of the NLA was the initiation of the NLA's College Scholarship Fund.  The criteria to obtain the scholarship is that the person be a former felon attending college.  According to the NLA their goal was to give that individual the tools needed to succeed and not return to prison.

One of their most creative projects was a cosmetic drive, which sent $70.00 worth of cosmetics and hygiene to Mt. Hope Prison Ministry which distributed the items to the homeless, women's shelters and others who were experiencing financial hardship.

The NLA states that they have had a good year and expects to be active in 2008.  The burgeoning prison population will soon be leaving the system and begin to work for you and with you in our communities.  It's going to be up to each and every one us to make sure the transition is smooth and easy.  Some don’t  have a place to go so in my opinion we must do everything possible to provide support services to prisoners and their families.

It’s difficult for some of us to think about helping prisoners or providing them with opportunities.  There must be a point in which we forgive those who have committed crimes.  We  all have the opportunity to change and better ourselves.

Recently, I received a call from Len Hill who attended at NLA meeting.  He indicated that he had prayed with the men at Michigan Reformatory and talked about how he could assist thme with some of their projects.  They arranged with the powers that be to give Len Hill Mother’s Day cards that were handmade.  They were to be sold and the money placed in the NLA account.  Since it was so new there wasn’t enough time to shop the idea around but their will be another Mother’s Day.

He also told me that they gave him a lovely hand painted picture of me.  He was excited about it and wanted me to have it as quickly as possible.

I changed around my schedule and made my way to Mount Hope.

When I saw the picture, I was aghast.  It was  drawing of the picture of me that was taken by the Lansing State Journal.  It was a true shock to me and I was speechless.
(It is on the front page of the newspaper).  

The oil painting is on a canvas panel.

On the back it states:

“To Rina Risper, in thanks for everything you do you are special.  Prison #210383 David.”

Thank you very much, David.


Rina Risper


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