Editor’s Note – Anyone who has done work with social media knows that it takes time, energy, and creativity to sustain an interesting blog, a regularly updated Facebook page and a steady stream of tweets. In that light, we are grateful and excited to have the opportunity to welcome Susan Mwarabu to Amicus social media team. Suzie has already brought fresh energy and tons of ideas to our efforts. Following is Suzie’s very moving story on how she came to volunteer with Amicus:
by Susan Mwarabu
It was no coincidence that I found my way to Amicus. I was searching for an organization I could volunteer with that possessed philosophies resonating with my own. My attention was repeatedly directed back to Amicus. Specifically, I was drawn to its restorative philosophy of caring, respect, responsibility, community and transformation; the exact ingredients I had been seeking in an organization. But I am getting ahead of myself. A series of unanticipated, far from desirable circumstances were responsible for providing the impetus to volunteer.
March 11, 2010 was a pivotal day for me, marking a permanent inexorable shift in the course of my life. A celebratory night with girlfriends turned into an evening of feckless drinking and quickly spiraled into an abyss of barely conscious behavior. The festivities disappeared in a blur and I awoke to a harsh reality of my own making. I was facing an assault charge, a two-night stay in the Ramsey County jail and a screeching halt to my budding career as a teacher. A guilty plea later coupled with a 58 day house arrest made the demise of my teaching career final.
I was devastated. Reminiscent of a deer caught in headlights, I watched my career, relationships and goals all come crashing down in one fell swoop. Emotionally numbing myself, I navigated my way through murky legal waters while a barrage of phone calls from reporters and hate mail from the community where I had taught underscored the irrevocable changes in my life. But the worst was yet to come.
The silence! The utter deafening silence from former friends, colleagues, and acquaintances was perhaps the most grueling to endure. Knowing everyone knew what was going on but receiving only silence from colleagues I had taught with all year long pushed me toward hopelessness. Or perhaps it was watching the media statements made by former collegiate community, eager to exonerate themselves from having the bad judgment of associating with me at all. At one point….No…. At many points; I too found myself wanting to distance myself from who I was. I didn’t think I was worthy of being part of the community I was in. In time, I perfected the art of disassociation, content to sit back and watch life pass me.
The Tide Changes
My husband and a few friends, some of whom I once taught with, must have sensed I was at a decision point in my life. Would I disengage forever, or try to step back toward life? Wrenching me out of my trancelike state, these few people first wrote character letters on my behalf, and then mercilessly engaged in a relentless campaign to get me back into the land of the living.
I recall one morning sitting in my kitchen with a former teacher and friend who had insisted on stopping by with her daughter and a bag full of assorted bagels. I was petrified. Would they would want to grill me, forcing me to revisit the events I had learned to disassociate from? To my surprise, they didn’t. What followed will forever be imprinted in my memory, for we engaged in a maddening discussion on the merits of cream cheese versus strawberry bagel toppings. I was grateful for the simplicity of unconditional non-judgmental companionship. At the end of the visit, my friend and her daughter left with a simple stern warning not to dare thank them. I am careful to access that memory only when I know there is no one around. It still has the power to make me cry.
I knew that if I ever had the opportunity, I would like to give back; to be an unconditional, non-judgmental friend to someone who was down one day. But I also knew I had much work to do on myself before I could offer myself to the world in that manner.
Anonymity became extremely appealing. The idea that I could seamlessly get about without anyone recognizing me or knowing that I had somehow broken the social contract appealed to me tremendously for a long time.
Anxiety, depression, guilt and shame became constant companions, refusing to leave my side despite herculean efforts ranging from therapy, traveling to four countries, immersion in self help reading, exercising and even concentration meditation. Everything I engaged in reminded me of the career I lost as a result of my offense.
An ex offender doesn’t wake up one morning and forget that the crime happened. She doesn’t wake up and somehow decide that today she is completely free. One day however, after countless therapy visits, I made a conscious decision to shed the shackles of the past. The loving support of my family and few friends had slowly nursed me back into society. I knew I needed to believe in myself the same way they did. If it were not for their support, I would have lost hope.
Looking at my reflection in the mirror one day, I told myself in a very Donald Trump-ianesque way:
“You are hired!”
Journey to Amicus
I forgave myself of my past indiscretions and got to work rejoining society. I owed it to my husband, son, and friends who had stood by me. Starting on a list of goals, I tackled each one with determination.
- I started on the path toward graduate school. I knew that education was one way to rebuild and present a better version of myself to the world. What better time to study and take the GRE than the house arrest phase of my consequence? So in the 58 days it took to complete my sentence, I studied, took and passed (barely) the GRE test. I applied to several institutions for chances to join their graduate program and to date still await a response. I decided to leave that goal to follow its natural course and moved to the next item on my “reentry to society” agenda.
- I began writing again. Always having a passion for writing, I began working on a reflective blog. The blog helps me channel my thoughts and reflections into a place where I could refine and nurture them. I also started working on a manuscript; detailing aspects of my life and continuing to explore the idea of writing as a career. But most importantly, I make sure to remain open to the possibilities that might present themselves in my life.
- I also started looking for volunteer opportunities. I researched organizations in Minnesota that dealt with restorative justice for ex offenders with the knowledge that were it not for the friendship and support of family and close friends, I would have never tackled the adversity that had faced me.
Amicus kept coming back to the forefront of all the organizations I researched. Every individual they helped had a different story. They didn’t focus on one specific demographic. Amicus seemed to have room to address varying issues with different groups being ostracized and marginalized through incarceration. The range of Amicus’ programs extend from support groups for those facing long-term prison sentences to peace circles engaged in community outreach dialogue. I was impressed to find Amicus also had a reentry program designed to assist ex offenders in their searches for jobs and housing after a period of incarceration.
Suffering is all the same. Both a long term sentence and short house arrest can lead to great loss. Rejection by loved ones and denial of a second chance in the community has the power to strip someone of humanity. It was evident that Amicus does not focus on just one aspect of a person but uses a broad range of responses to help individuals with varying needs. Amicus attempts to assist by helping people identify and walk their own path back to community. Without organizations such as Amicus, many people, especially those without the support of a strong family network such as mine, have few, if any, options.
Wasting no time and armed with the knowledge that I had nothing to lose; I took a bold step by calling Amicus and introducing myself. I emailed an introduction and took special care to highlight the blemishes in my life. I also attached a resume highlighting my credentials (none of which were being utilized) and in no time was recruited as a volunteer blogger for Amicus.
Even with an unclear future, the fact that I could somehow give back to the community and be of value through volunteering at Amicus gives me the hope that others might find value and restoration within the community once they have paid their dues to society