Volunteer Spotlight: Jen

Jen is one of Brilliance Inside’s most dedicated volunteers, coming into prison almost every week for the past two years as well as keeping many activities “on the outside” running.  She’s a light to the men who trust her deeply.  Now’s your chance to discover her light: 


Every Tuesday at Donovan begins the same way: After being processed by an officer, I push open the heavy door that separates us from the first walkway of the prison—one of many—and the A Yard. I look up. Shiny metal fencing towers everywhere and casts diamond shadows across the concrete we walk on. Razor wire glistens in the sun with thorny arms wrapped and rolling for miles, an end I can’t see. The sky looks wider than before I’d stepped inside prison—like it always does, as if this dense world of prison somehow widens my world…and in many ways, it always does.

In March, I celebrated two years of volunteering to help run the TEDx program. The description above is a scene I’ve come to regard as normal, even beautiful, if not a bit haunting—as if the razor wire surrounding this prison contains more than people, but also everything that makes us human—the men’s pain and sorrow, their bittersweet joy, their loneliness…the separation, and ours; everything about prison affects me to my core. Yet, the men in blue locked up inside Donovan with whom I have the honor to work are the reason I keep coming in.

Once we hit the A Yard, we begin our walk with handshakes instead of hugs. Some men meet us at the top of the track.  We walk together into the space in which we’ll meet for the next three hours in the safe, confidential circle:  Sharing stories, catching up, working on logistics, creating visions, discussing current news.  No matter the conversation or our work a spectacular moment always creeps in, until, suddenly, my heart is touched, again. Is it the men’s innocence, some from being locked up since they were 16…that creates such beauty? Or is it their wisdom from being incarcerated, some for over 30 years? Maybe it’s both. There’s just something precious I can’t touch but can feel when I’m with the men in blue; their unique perspective from transforming themselves inside this tough container, their nonjudgment, their open minds and gentle hearts.

Every Tuesday, when it’s time to leave, we stop at the top of the track. The men can’t go any further. There we say our last goodbyes, as we shake hand…after hand…after hand. My heart feels heavy, as it always does, leaving the men behind, but not as heavy as it used to. I know it’s only one more week before I’ll be in again. How could I ever stop?

Plus: Listen to Jen’s TEDx Talk “Don’t Tell Me What You Did Wrong, Tell Me What You Do Right” from TEDxWilmingtonWomen.

Jonathan Martin