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"How often can you be around people who are in the middle of completely remaking themselves as individuals?"
On the phone, Al Massey can be soft-spoken.
But here, in the Cleveland Correctional Center's cavernous gym, where 129 participants of PEP's 22nd class are being welcomed to thunderous applause by more than 100 volunteers, Massey is an electrifying emcee.
The volunteers, mostly middle-aged, mostly white men and women in business attire, form two parallel lines as the inmates, a mostly young mix of black, white and Latino in blue jumpsuits, stride down the aisle created by the volunteers, smiling as they slap palms and shake hands. Many inmates take the time to greet each of the volunteers, whose first names are printed on laminated tags, and thank them for coming.
It's a downright cheery, celebratory atmosphere that includes chocolate chip cookies and a sound system blaring "Hip Hop Hooray." If it weren't for the jumpsuits, the event could be mistaken for a pep rally at a high school for slightly older students.
In a bit, the inmates will set up rows of folding chairs that face each other, so PEP participants and volunteers can introduce themselves and talk for a few minutes. It's like platonic speed-dating. Some of the volunteers, like Kirsten Berger and Bill Frank, have been coming for years. In her makeup, slacks and heels, Berger seems like the last person you would encounter in a prison gym, but there might not be anyone else here who appears to be having as much fun.
A few years back, when she attended her first PEP class as part of her certification for becoming a life coach, Berger wasn't quite sure what to think. She saw the joy and hope on display behind this bastion of barbed wire and was haunted. "These guys are criminals," she thought. "They aren't supposed to be smiling."
But after a while, she says, she saw the transformation. She says that these criminals were really trying to become something.
"Nobody should be defined by the biggest mistake they ever made in their life," Berger says. No doubt about it, these guys screwed up. They made terrible decisions, but, Berger says, "Your choices can suck, but people don't suck."
Berger says she got hooked by witnessing in the participants a "complete transformation of a human being," which is also why Frank, the general manager of business development at Chevron, stuck around.
Like Berger, Frank is among the "God squad" contingent of PEP. He met a PEP grad at church and was intrigued enough by the guy's stories that he decided to check it out himself -- provided his new friend accompanied him. He'd go to prison only via the buddy system.
"I thought I'm just a, you know, suburban white guy, professional job...no tattoos," Frank says. "What do I have in common with these guys?"
As you might have guessed, the story ends with Frank realizing he had more in common with them than he thought. And much of that had to do with their being, like him, husbands and fathers. There was something there to connect with.
And as also happened with Berger, Frank said the real appeal was in the changes he was witnessing: "The fancy word is 'transformation,'" he says. "You're around all these people who are changing their lives right in front of you. And you know, how often do you see that?"
Striking a more subdued pose was Jaime Shaw, a first-timer who'd heard about PEP from a friend who'd volunteered. Shaw had especially personal and professional motivations to check out the program: He knew just how difficult it was to start a career with a criminal record.