In the fall of 2004, the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing (MCF-RW) was awarded a grant to implement an after-school program that would enhance and enrich the lives of the residents incarcerated at the correctional facility. The program was titled Learning Enrichment Activities Program (LEAP). In addition to academic classes, residents were given an opportunity to participate in community service components.
Since early 2005, residents involved in the LEAP community service activity have been meeting weekly with residents from the Vasa Children’s Home, a residential facility for children who are mentally and physically challenged. The juvenile offenders who participate in the community service activities are classified as serious and chronic offenders, individuals who one would not normally expect to be doing volunteer work. They participate voluntarily, during their unscheduled time, and they receive no monetary reward for their participation. The non-tangible rewards they receive and the contributions they make are immeasurable. Residents experience the good feelings that result from helping others; they understand the importance of giving back to the community; they feel a sense of value and importance while helping other feel the same. In addition, they challenge their own thoughts and beliefs about respecting themselves and others.
Although the two groups of individuals may seem very different; they are really very much alike. Both groups of individuals are living away from home, do not have many visits from family or friends, are often lonely, and most of all, they want someone to care about them and make them feel accepted and special. During the weekly visits, the residents play board games, do art and craft activities, participate in athletic competitions, and most importantly, become friends. They provide each other with a sense of belonging and the feeling the someone cares about them. They give each other a sense of purpose and worth. Each group of individuals knows that the other accepts them unconditionally, which is something they do not always receive from others.
Chronic and serious juvenile offenders making the lives of children with mental and physical challenges happier may not be solving the problems of the world, but they are making the lives of two groups of individuals so much better. If volunteering with the children helps just one juvenile offender see the impact of his behavior on others, a big step has been made towards rehabilitation. If volunteering with the children helps just one challenged child feel accepted, a big step has been made towards creating a better community. If both groups of individuals feel better about themselves because someone cared, then the world is a better place.