When the president of Marymount Manhattan College, Judson Shaver, was a boy, his grandmother, a committed conservative Christian, used to bring him along for her volunteer work at a women’s prison. It was kind of like Sunday school twice a month and it was something she did for 80 years. The prison in Riverside, Calif., named her volunteer of the century.
I am rapt listening to Shaver tell the story in our recent interview. Primarily because the reason I am speaking with him in the first place is to discuss the degree program his college offers inmates at the Bedford Correctional Facility for Women, but also because as he tells the story he calls this all a coincidence.
So I circle him back to that “coincidence” thing and ask, really?
“What you’re getting at, I think, pleases me to no end and that is I grew up believing that if you live your life for yourself, you would have a very empty, shallow life,” Shaver says. “The source of that for me was a religious upbringing, but its fruition in my adult life is secular. It’s as strong a commitment as ever that if we don’t use some of our gifts, some of our time, some of our advantages, some of our strengths to be of service to others, to help others, we just haven’t really fully lived. The good life includes being of value and service to others.”
Nora Moran knows a little something about Shaver’s commitment to value and service to others. She earned a bachelor’s degree through the Marymount Manhattan College program while incarcerated at Bedford (beginning from age 18). While there serving time for armed robbery, Moran encountered the organization Puppies Behind Bars (PBB) which, according to its website, “trains prison inmates to raise service dogs for wounded war veterans and explosive detection canines for law enforcement.”
Now, at age 31 and out of prison since 2008, Moran is the director of the Dog Tags Program that places service dogs with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. She is also an instructor for PBB, going back into prison twice a week to teach women at Bedford and men at the Fishkill Correctional Facility to raise and train puppies to become service dogs.
“I wasn’t aware how much [studying for a degree] would change me,” Moran told me in our recent interview. “I knew I was kind of thirsty for what they had to say. It made me and a number of my peers passionate. They created a dialogue.”
Moran took two or three courses at a time from 1999 through 2006 and particularly loved sociology (“learning how people in different cultures created their world”), psychology (“how we operate and how our minds work”) and women’s studies (“how women’s rights have evolved over time”). She also became immersed in Shakespeare and English literature, crediting an especially passionate teacher for making it “come alive.”
Considering this was once a troubled young woman who was, by her own admission, leading a double life of church groups and drinking/drugs, imagine the coupling of a school regimen and the Puppies Behind Bars curriculum as a way to turn a life around. Moran began working with PBB in 2000.
“What I did to go to prison, there’s no way to atone for that,” Moran said. “This gave me a way to grow up and give back at the same time. Dogs, they teach so much, reflect back who you are.”
As director of the Dog Tags Program, part of Moran’s administrative role is to go through the over 100 veteran applications per year from candidates who want to receive dogs; only 15 dogs per year are placed. She is also looking into graduate school, likely for public administration with a specialty in non-profit business management.
“One of the best parts of my job is after almost two years, to see how empowering it is for puppy raisers to hand the dog over,” she said. “It’s extraordinary to witness, extraordinary to be a part of that.”
While Moran is relating her life story to me, I find myself having to ask if she always knew she had this potential, even when she was an angry and confused teen.
“Definitely,” she said. “I have a really supportive mom. She’s been amazing throughout my incarceration and now. I have support even in my hometown and that’s important to me. The church I grew up in is still supportive of me. That’s one of the things that has made my story a success story.”
Support. That brings us back to Judson Shaver and the Marymount Manhattan College mission. Shaver has held his position for 11 years and over that time the benefits of the already established prison program have been reinforced over and over again.
“I think there are 700 or 800 women in prison there and maybe 170 of them at any given time are our students,” he says. “We’ve been there since the mid 90s. [Women who have participated] said that the college program not only changed their lives and their prospects, their families’ lives and prospects and their own sense of themselves. They said it changes the entire prison.
“One of the highest status things you can do at that prison is be a college student of Marymount Manhattan College. In order to be in our program, there can be no marks against your name. You have to be well behaved in every way or they’ll yank you from the program. It’s a privilege not a right.”
A right that, thanks to Shaver, can be earned by those incarcerated at Bedford well into the future. After inmates lost Pell Grants under the Clinton administration and funding had to come from other sources, the college took a series of steps that had the program alternately flourishing, struggling, flourishing. Shaver found himself wondering what would happen one day when he left, so he set out to raise some serious money. The endowment now stands at $2.5 million and he has a sense of peace that the program is “secure in perpetuity.”
He tells me seeing what it has done for women like Nora Moran makes his eyes mist.
“We must do as much good as we can for each other,” he says.
That coincidence we spoke of earlier? I think not.
Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.