Saturday, December 7, 2013
By GREG SMITH Norwich Bulletin
MOOSUP, Conn. - When she first entered the York Correctional Institution in Niantic five years ago, prison ministry volunteer Gina Raymond of Tolland thought to herself, "What am I doing here?"
But her fears faded quickly after her first meeting with one of the inmates at the state's only women's prison, she said.
"Believe it or not, I started to feel very much at home -- like it was a calling," Raymond said. "I guess this is part of God's plan for me."
Raymond is involved in the Willow program and is one of hundreds of volunteers to attend the Gift of Grace training program sponsored by the Norwich Diocesan Office for Prison Ministry. The ministry trains individuals looking to spread the spiritual word to prisoners.
Sheree Antoch, director of the prison ministry, said the program began in 2001 and offers volunteers to prisons across the state, including the nine in the area covered by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich.
And while volunteers are trained in Scripture and religious education, Antoch said the training also touches on areas such as substance abuse and anger management, with presentations from a licensed clinical social worker and retired Department of Correction drugs and alcohol counselor.
"These people have so much information and a wealth of knowledge that helps break down the insensitivities," Antoch said. "It prepares people a little bit on what they might get on the inside."
Since its inception 11 years ago, the program has helped to train more than 300 volunteers, even some non-Catholics.
Raymond said she meets one on one with inmates, "helping them along their journey" and developing trust. She is at the prison three times a week.
Jack York of Moosup has been doing similar work for the past four years at the Brooklyn Correctional Institution.
"I always wanted to give back," York said.
York visits the Brooklyn prison once a week and also is involved in a mentoring program at Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire.
"It's tough to say if someone's getting it or not," York said. "They come for a variety of reasons -- some just to get out of their dormitories.
"It's amazing how many prisons are very religious places," York said. "A great number of people find religion when they are there. We hope and pray they keep it when they get out."