As we were developing the following story about our President, Louise Wolfgramm, it became pretty apparent to me that the important elements of her story also say much about our values as an agency. Enjoy!
Post by Steve Nelson
Friendship is a powerful thing.
Amicus President Louise Wolfgramm remembers the day that this simple sentiment began to mean something much more to her – little did she know then that her belief in the transformative power of friendship would become a guiding principle in her life’s work.
Her father, John Conrad, was a criminal justice scholar who studied correctional systems in many nations. Louise, who was then a teenager, accompanied him to Wales, visiting a borstal, a correctional facility for boys. She recalls walking into a military-style dormitory where boys were lined up in front of bedsides that looked exactly the same, row upon row, even down to the hairbrush on the bedstands.
“All the boys were standing there with the same look. Their eyes were dead. They just looked so alone – so isolated. Then it struck me. Here I was with my dad who adored me. I felt protected and surrounded with love. I just always knew I’d be okay. And then I looked at these boys who didn’t have any of that – no love in their lives, no one who cared about them. I remember thinking that if these guys had friendship, maybe their eyes would light up again. What was missing was a connection with people in the community, people who cared about them and saw their potential – friends.”
She learned through her father’s work that such friendship needs to come from an equal footing, offered with respect. Early in his career, Conrad served as a social worker at San Quentin prison and Louise noted how he tried to treat everyone, both staff and inmates, with dignity. “The value of respect is really important to me. You respect everyone regardless of where they come from.”
She gained an equally valuable lesson from her mother – the need to care; to see the personal response needed in even the largest of issues.
“I always had the feeling that my mother had no boundaries in her heart and mind,” Louise recalled. “The concept of ‘I’m all right and I don’t need to worry about someone else’ was not okay.”
Those lessons stayed with Louise even while she pursued a career in acting. She showed promise, but began to understand that life on stage wasn’t her true calling.
“So one day, while I was wondering what was next for me, I saw an ad on TV for Amicus. My childhood memories came rushing back in that instant and I remembered
the things my parents had said to me and I realized the prison system, for the most part, wasn’t effecting real change.
The community has to make the difference, because the system can’t.”
She became a part of that difference by volunteering for Amicus starting in 1971. Amicus didn’t yet have a program for women to serve as prison visitors so Louise made her contribution through areas such as office work and special events coordination.
In 1972, she and board member Gwen Dayton, Governor Mark Dayton’s mother, teamed up to begin a women’s program. Soon, Louise became a full time staff member and not long after that she was named Executive Director of the fledgling organization.
Today, after almost 40 years leading Amicus, Louise has added another key word to her personal lexicon. It has allowed her to stay engaged and passionate over four decades. That word is “transformation.”
“We’re privileged at Amicus. So many of the people we work with have so much going against them. But they have the desire and energy to change. That transformation is so huge in their lives, but it takes so little for us to help.”
Louise sees transformation as the common denominator among all Amicus programs. In ‘Reconnect,’ the transformation might be short-term, as a reentering ex-offender finds help through a tip on a job or maybe a new coat or a transit pass. In ‘One to One,’ the transformation might be longer term, as lifetime friendships are begun.
“And we really see transformation in ‘Radius,’” Louise said. “To reach someone at that age is so exciting!”
Wolfgramm recalled one of her favorite stories of transformation: She had been in a correctional facility interviewing inmates as part of the process for matching them with ’One to One’ volunteers, when in came an inmate who didn’t at all fit the profile for the typical ‘One to One’ participant. At the time, he was under investigation for smuggling drugs into the prison.
“So I asked him straight out, ‘Here you are, actively breaking the law and you want to be a ‘One to One’? What’s your motivation? Why are you here?’”
He told Louise there was this guy in a cell next to him named Larry; “Larry the Lump,” he called him because he just sat there, not doing much but looking hopeless.
“He then tells me, ‘I’ve always had energy and ideas. I’m alive. But I’ve been watching Larry for a while now and I’ve seen ‘the Lump’ change. He’s not just sitting around anymore. He’s going to school and taking care of himself. I ask why and I hear it’s because he’s involved in ‘One to One.’ So I figure if you can make those kind of changes happen in a lump like that, just imagine what you can do for me!’”
Louise recalled that Larry’s ‘One to One’ volunteer wasn’t a miracle worker or a criminal justice pioneer like her father. He was a dental supply salesman – just a regular guy.
Wolfgramm envisions a time when whole communities recognize their stake in the lives of incarcerated men, women and children. She is hopeful that one day we can all see that the opportunity and responsibility to be a part of transformation belongs to all of us. If we can approach that mission with caring, respect and friendship, we will transform ourselves in the process.