Jun 30, 2014

You Can Do it!: Profiles of "Circles of Support" Volunteers

If you ever thought telling someone “Good morning,” and flashing them a genuine smile was a futile effort at service, you clearly haven’t met Sarah Colbert. This 70 year old South Carolina native takes time out of her schedule Thursday mornings to do just that at the Harlem Community Justice Center during parole hearings.

“I’m glad it might rain so my friends can’t play the tennis match without me,” Sarah joked as she served bagels and muffins to the individuals under parole supervision awaiting their parole hearings at the Harlem Community Justice Center. That’s right. This retired radiology tech, Occupational Safety Department employee and nursing assistant has been playing tennis for the past seven years. She also loves bowling and volunteering through the Interfaith Center of New York and her church—St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church—where she has volunteered with the HIV/AIDS program, feeding ministry and health education.

You might notice a common theme in Sarah’s life based upon her former employment, current volunteer involvement and sports interests. “My heart is in health and service,” Sarah informed me. “My parents raised me to serve all people. There’s always so much to do.” Proud to call Harlem her home for the past several years, Sarah clearly did not leave her “southern hospitality” back in South Carolina.

But what brought Sarah to serve formerly incarcerated individuals as they await their parole hearings? “I love encouraging young people here and getting smiles and hearing their stories.” Considering the uncertainty and stress that precedes parole hearings, simple words of encouragement and smiles are worth more than you might think. I couldn’t help smiling as I observed Sarah talk and laugh with so many of these young men by name. It’s obvious that the fruits of her service extend beyond handing out breakfast pastries and beverages here once a week.

Sarah’s heart for justice involved young people is also a bit personal, as her son has been involved in his share of unjust run-ins with the police. “I also have a friend whose son was falsely accused, and he just received his bachelor’s degree,” Sarah shared. “I love when kids tell me they’re going back to school or whatever their plans are. I love watching them flourish.” One of the most important principles Sarah shares with these people is to be leaders, not followers. And when they lead, they must lead people down the right path.

“You can do it,” is one of two favorite phrases Sarah often shares with the young people she serves. The other phrase? “God promised it to you.” It is no coincidence that a majority of Sarah’s community service involvement has been through church ministries. In fact, all of her service has been inspired by her faith. Her favorite Bible verse is Luke 6:31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  The importance of service that her parents instilled in Sarah is truly a living principle as Sarah continues to live this message.
 With a grant from the J.C Flowers Foundation, the Harlem Community Justice Center, the Interfaith Center of New York and the Network in the Prisons/ Network in the Community Programs (Network Program) have created a partnership with the goal of engaging family members and faith community volunteers to support men and women returning to Harlem from prison. The initiative is called The Family and Faith Reentry Circles of Support Program.

The forthcoming series of profiles of volunteers, staff, and participants, of the Reentry Family and Faith Circles of Support program, are written by Monique Claiborne. Monique--an Opelousas, Louisiana native-- is a Politics major at Princeton University. Currently an intern at the Harlem Community Justice Center, Monique plans to continue working for systemic justice reform as an attorney in the near future.