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Surprise at the Rescue Mission

Maybe it’s time to lend a helping hand rather than just use that hand to sign a check to contribute a donation to a worthy cause.

As I arrived at the rescue mission, a tall man whose face reminded me of John Grisham’s approached the car. He extended his hand as he introduced himself. I mirrored his gesture and identified myself. Exchanging pleasantries and small talk, he escorted me inside for a quick look-see of the rooms where the residents attend classes. Some men were working on earning their GEDs. A few entered the facility. With Southern ease and charm, he introduced me.

As we settled into a conference room, I met the chaplain and the director of education who were interested in what I do. I’m an instructor for Olli, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, at Duke University where I teach a class on penning the personal essay in which my students are retired folks who want to record their life stories, memories, travels, careers…

I asked Matt, whom I presumed to be the head of the homeless shelter, what brought men here. “Addiction, homelessness, different things…” he said. Matt flattered me by saying he heard about my teaching from a friend of his who was active in Olli’s leadership, and she recommended he contact me because she thought I could help the residents “tell their stories.” Although an instructor doesn’t receive a salary at Olli, we are given an honorarium. Since no mention of payment was made by this gentleman, I assumed I was being recruited as a volunteer. Sometimes, I have qualms about volunteering when it’s not my idea – when instead I’ve been volunteered by others. The night before, my husband said, “You don’t need the money, and you might find it interesting.” So, I went.

Matt showed a video of what the rescue mission was trying to accomplish. The film was an effective tool designed to attract volunteers and donors. The meeting with the two gentlemen ended with our bowing our heads, and Matt leading us in prayer. After taking our leave of the chaplain and director of education, we strolled through more of the venue while chatting casually about grandchildren and approaching Christmas and holiday preparations. He showed me the masses of toys gathered for children to be distributed in the next couple of days. He pointed out the area where they’d have a huge dinner for the rescue mission’s residents and families. He was upbeat, enthusiastic, and courteous.

So, I committed to teaching three classes in which I’d steer the regular teachers in ways to structure a story to ensure it had a take-away message of hope. I said to this charming listener, “In my Olli classes I had retired physicians, lawyers, biochemists – many people more erudite and accomplished than I, but they didn’t know how to create a non-fiction narrative that wasn’t boring.” Matt laughed good-naturedly. I continued, “I had 12 to a class – a lot when you’re editing students’ papers. How many are in a class here?”

“Sixty,” he said with a straight face.

“Sixty!” I exclaimed, wondering how I could possibly review their essays when many of these guys had not even gotten their GEDs. “When young, I taught public high school. So, I guess it’ll be like teaching in that sort of environment.” I almost jokingly added that I sometimes felt like I was teaching the future felons of America, but for some reason, I held back from uttering my usual witticism.

“Do you know my story?” Matt asked.

“Your story?”

“I’m an inmate.”

“An inmate, what?”

“I’m on work release.”

“But you’ll go home to your children and wife tonight?”

“No” he shook his head sadly, “I go back to jail.”

I gazed at the articulate, poised, charming banker-type who stood so tall, lean, and well-groomed in front of me, who was perhaps five years younger than I, and I queried, “What did you do to get yourself arrested?”

“I crossed boundaries. I was a financial advisor. I violated my clients’ trust.”

Uncertain of what to say next, I said, “There’s a lot of temptation with that job, I imagine.”

He was quiet for a moment and then said, “I’ve served nine of my ten-year sentence.”

I was dumbfounded. He added, “That is why I send my emails through someone else. Did you notice they didn’t come directly from me?”

“I supposed your secretary was mailing them for you?”

“I’m not allowed to use email.”

“I see.”

“In prison, I read a book that helped me. I found it lying on my bunk one day. I believe a book angel put it there. It was Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul.”

I studied him a moment. He seemed sincere. “I have an assignment for you. You write your story. It will have a powerful message. I’ll help you. See you in January.”

I drove away thinking how often I judge a book by its cover. Here I mistook Matt as a salaried director in charge of the charitable organization, never suspecting that he most likely had a more scurrilous past than the homeless addicts residing there who often are in a desperate situation, without any privileges endowed on them, only inherited hardships difficult to escape from. Matt, like one of my all-time favorite North Carolinian writers, was an embezzler, a thief. Like O. Henry, he got caught.

Matt seemed sincerely repentant. On that ride home, I thought how in my long life, I’ve never been knowingly in the presence of a prisoner before. I’ve not mixed with addicts and folks down on their luck. I’ve led a protected life.

With Christmas approaching, I feel perhaps it’s time to practice goodwill toward all. Maybe it’s time to lend a helping hand rather than just use that hand to sign a check to contribute a donation to a worthy cause. Maybe the residents of the rescue mission will learn something from me, and perhaps I’ll discover inspiration from hearing their stories. Maybe, charitable work isn’t a one-way street, at all.


  1. First, kudos to you for donating your time and energy to such a worthy cause. We all want to leave a little part of us whether it is in the form of experience, history, advice or atonement. We are/were here! You are giving people the best form of therapy and comfort—their ‘voice.” Great essay!

  2. This is an important message, especially at this time when so many have found their lives upended. I realize this encounter happened pre-COVID, but there are still many ways we can reach out to help those in need of encouragement and support.

  3. What a surprise! Erika set the stage very well. And now the possibility of 60 people wanting to share something important, 60 stories to be told, and to be read by the instructor! That was quite a surprise, too.

  4. Oh boy, Erika, I feel guilty for only writing checks. You hit the nail on the head, what you are doing is definitely a two-way street. So much to teach, yet probably even more to learn. Your story is a good one. You never know the story of someone you meet, prince or pauper.

  5. You’re an inspiration, Erika. With your talent and good heart, you have what it takes to teach personal essay writing to homeless shelter residents. Matt and all your students will appreciate your efforts.

  6. As usual, Erika you hit the ball out of the park with this one! Great message! You can’t judge a book by its cover! What a great way to help these men and women share their stories! Very therapeutic for them and their readers! Thanks for volunteering your time for a good cause!

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