What are you happy about today? It’s a fair question and I’ve heard it asked before. A couple of weeks ago, however, I heard it asked – and answered – in a most unexpected place.
One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is speaking to clubs, churches and other organizations about my employer, The Salvation Army. I have enjoyed breakfast, lunch and supper at a variety of service clubs, church groups and other organizations. This month, however, I had a new speaking experience. I was asked to speak to the Kiwanis Club at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville. The prison club is a satellite of the Southeast Polk Kiwanis Club in Altoona.
Having never visited a state prison before, I had no idea what to expect. When I was on a small town police reserve more than 40 years ago I had to lock up a drunken college friend in a city jail holding cell but that wasn’t nearly as ominous as a state prison. Memories of an old Andy Griffith episode floated in my mind. Barney Fife was kidnapped by group of women who had escaped from a nearby prison. Most of them were rough, tough gals who could have dropped Barney with one blow.
Upon arrival at the prison I checked in as instructed and waited for a representative of the Altoona club. He arrived at the same time as a prison counselor and we headed for the meeting room, a law library that doubles as the meeting room for state parole board meetings.
Several inmates were in the room when we arrived and a couple more arrived a few minutes later.
I was surprised. These women didn’t look tough. In fact, any one of them could be your next door neighbor. They ranged in age, I guessed, from early 30s to about 60.
After some preliminary conversation the meeting opened with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, just like every other Kiwanis meeting I have attended. Then the Altoona club liaison asked the question, "What are you happy about today?" Somewhat cynical about the situation I thought, "What do these gals have to be happy about? They’re locked up in prison 24/7."
One of the younger women began. "I am happy because the parole board granted me a parole today." Her fellow Kiwanians applauded. I saw no jealousy. They were all thrilled for her.
The next woman offered, "I’m happy because my family loves me and continues to support me each day." Another woman was happy because her 18-year-old daughter was accepted into a special U.S. Navy program. I learned later that the girl was 2-years-old when her mother was admitted to the Mitchellville facility.
Still another woman was happy because she was hoping to be released from the prison in May.
Each woman was happy about something. I was impressed.
After my presentation I asked if there were any questions. The women eagerly asked what they could do for the people The Salvation Army serves. Some of the women knit hats, scarves and mittens and asked if we would make them available to people who needed them. I assured her we will. Other women make children’s quilts and asked if we would make them available to poor children. Of course, we will.
One of the women told me that she had met God in prison and wanted to do what she could to serve others. Still another explained that they knew they were in the prison because of bad choices but they wanted to serve the needy outside the prison. While I hoped the women learned something from my presentation I learned a greater lesson. I learned (for the umpteenth time) not to judge people by their circumstances. The Kiwanians of the Mitchellville prison were some nice gals. They acknowledged their crimes and are paying their debt to society, and while they do so they are reaching out to help less fortunate people outside the prison.
And because they choose to help others, they had something to be happy about. Those of us on the outside could learn from them.