By Jenn Macris

I think we’re all done hearing about “these unprecedented times,” but the truth is, few nonprofits know what to do in “these times” to continue to set and reach important goals. COVID has forced all of us to become even more flexible. Touchstones’ flexibility actually allowed us to surpass our previous goals in establishing our Women’s Prison Volunteer Corps. Thanks to our online format, we were able not only to establish a Volunteer Corps, but to double our initial goal of training five volunteers.

This six-week training program was funded by a generous grant from Anne Arundel Women Giving Together (AAWGT), as part of securing the future of the Touchstones program at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. Trained volunteers help run Touchstones programs even when there is little or no funding available to cover staff time. And these programs are invaluable to the women in the prison, as they contribute to improved decision-making and parenting skills and lead to reduced recidivism.

For the volunteer training program, 13 women total joined the 90-minute, weekly training meetings to learn more about the women’s prison environment in general (from specifics on how to enter the prison building to the key predictors of recidivism) and learn and practice how to facilitate Touchstones discussions in this unique  community. Two of the participants included teachers from the school at MCI-W, where they’ve had the opportunity to see Touchstones programs benefit their students since 2015.

This group of Touchstones volunteers, a mix of new and seasoned participants, immediately took to the Touchstones discussion format. Using lessons from Touchstones Volume B, which is also used in the prison classes, our participation began the same way it does for the women in prison. Together, we reviewed the Touchstones Ground Rules. We then moved to individual and small group work and ended with a full group discussion and a closer look at our group interaction overall. We also each reflected on how we could improve our own interpersonal skills to help the group’s outcomes.

The growth over the six-week training program was incredible! As one participant commented, “My biggest personal surprise is how I actually learned something about myself – that at my age, we can still learn to slow down and listen to others calmly. It’s just a very different environment from what I’ve spent most of my life in… [it’s] a calmer, quieter behavior when you’re in a group.”

Touchstones thanks AAWGT and all the women who participated in this training program to help ensure the long-term sustainability of our Women’s Prison Program. We look forward to bringing our volunteers and their new discussion leadership skills into MCI-W when it’s safe to do so.