Tag Archive for: Volunteer

An Invitation to Veterans

By Leith Daghistani

Over the Summer, Touchstones revitalized its efforts to expand access to Completing the Odyssey: A Journey Home, a discussion program for veterans on the transition to civilian life. Program development was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and before the onset of the pandemic it had been piloted with several groups of veterans from the greater Baltimore-Annapolis-Washington area and implemented in Baltimore at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training. The program stands to empower veterans from all service eras to navigate the transition to civilian life through explorations of selections from Homer’s Odyssey and readings on the challenges of service and homecoming from modern conflicts.

Now, Touchstones is planning to broaden the impact of the program by introducing discussion groups into new communities. In August, Touchstones staff and volunteers, including myself, met with veterans who had previously completed the program and who now seek to lead new discussion groups with veterans in their own communities. The group discussed partnership opportunities with the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Service Organizations, nonprofits, and local communities to find veterans struggling with the transition to civilian life or who feel disconnected from their community after service and invite them into the dialogue. The group also discussed additional opportunities to include active-duty service members in Touchstones discussions to help prepare them for combat leadership and operating in uncertain environments. We also discussed the Touchstones program, Together, which brings civilians and veterans into dialogues about bridging the social divide between veterans and non-veterans.

The group then transitioned into a Touchstones discussion from Completing the Odyssey on a text from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. Our discussion focused on preparation for leadership roles and strategies for success, while exploring how we might carry combat experience, tactical uncertainty, and martial courage home with us in ways that affect our daily lives.
In that discussion, I saw how Completing the Odyssey provides a space for veterans to reflect collaboratively on their service to our nation, while supporting fundamental skills necessary to deepen their understanding of themselves and how to speak, listen, and connect with others more authentically. These skills have always been crucial for a successful reintegration, and they are especially urgent for post 9/11 veterans who have often deployed and seen combat at higher rates over the past 20 years than those who served before them. As Touchstones expands this program and increases participation among newer veterans, it offers the chance for veterans across service eras to share their experiences with peers, so they can better navigate their own journeys while helping others to do the same.

Honoring those who bring the Touchstones Mission to Life

By Howard Zeiderman

Someone once said that the first time you do something, it’s a revolution. The second time, it’s a tradition. Here at Touchstones, it has become a great annual tradition to honor volunteers and teachers whose time and talents help bring Touchstones—the organization and programs—to life. Each fall, Touchstones staff, volunteers, Board members, donors, and friends convene to share holiday cheer and celebrate our collective efforts. It’s a time to reflect on our progress in preparing all people—as critical thinkers and collaborative leaders—for success in school, work, and society.

At that event, we honor an educator who implements the project in exemplary ways as our “Teacher of the Year.” Last year, that award was renamed in memory of Geoff Comber, one of my fellow Touchstones co-founders. Geoff was a life-long crusader on behalf of teachers— particularly in public education. He spent his life working to support their continuing professional development and practice. During this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have watched many teachers courageously rise to the challenge of overwhelming and unanticipated changes in education. We’ve heard their concerns and struggles in meeting their students’ needs—social and academic—and their worries about their students’ welfare. And we’ve been heartened by reports of how Touchpebbles and Touchstones discussions are invaluable tools for maintaining and rebuilding community at a time when our nation is increasingly separated— ideologically and physically. This year, the Board of Directors and staff find it only fitting to recognize all Touchstones teachers as exemplars of Geoff Comber’s indomitable spirit and faith in education. Please join me in recognizing teachers everywhere and especially Touchstones teachers—who go above and beyond to ensure their students’ voices are cultivated, heard, and valued—as our Geoffrey J. Comber Teachers of the Year.

To ensure teachers can accomplish this vital work and always have access to Touchstones programs, we rely on volunteers to help with outreach, advocacy, fundraising, and public programming. Our volunteers’ efforts mean our fundraising dollars and earned income can reach and engage even more people of all ages and regardless of their economic circumstance or background. Touchstones volunteers provide the invisible support, encouragement, and assistance that empowers our small but mighty staff to create a vast footprint—year after year. And so, each year we honor someone who exemplifies dedication and passion for the Touchstones mission through volunteer service. It is my honor to announce John Christensen as our 2020 Volunteer of the Year. For more than a decade, John has carefully stuffed thousands of envelopes to bring Touchstones news to the far reaches of the universe, encouraged and thanked donors, supported fundraising events with his brains and brawn, and been a constant friend. He represents the very best that volunteerism makes possible.

Growth In Time of Uncertainty

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.

Shaping the New Normal

By Jenn Macris

Like other non-profits, businesses and organizations around the world, Touchstones is moving forward in the new normal we all face due to the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to loyal donors and generous foundations, our good work in education continues. We are especially pleased to announce that Touchstones was awarded, for a second year, a $20,000 grant from Anne Arundel Women Giving Together (AAWGT) to continue our weekly discussion programs in the school at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCI-W) in Jessup, MD. Our AAWGT grant liaisons, who participated in that program at the prison in March, were able to see firsthand how their philanthropic investment in Touchstones is helping women inside to change their lives.

Cindy Whittle, one of our liaisons from AAWGT, recently shared this about her own experience and thoughts on Touchstones receiving another grant for this program: “I have truly enjoyed seeing the Touchstones program in action. It was an emotional experience to see the women at Jessup embracing the discussions and committing to the process. I was touched by the level of engagement and the thoughtful way participants respond to each other. Touchstones empowers the women to make better choices, to understand other participants’ viewpoints, and is an asset for these women. I am so pleased that AAWGT understood that and voted to extend the funding for another year.”

Although the prison program will look different due to additional safety measures when programming starts again, the core teaching and learning together will remain the same. This will be true even if our discussions initially take place with Touchstones staff joining remotely. We look forward to working with the prison school staff and the women incarcerated at MCI-W with a renewed focus on strengthening skills of civil discourse, reflective thinking, and cooperative learning—skills that serve us all well. Working together, we’ll honor each other’s experiences and ideas and strive to establish the mutual trust and regard we know is required for collaborative learning.

In addition to our renewed partnership with AAWGT, Touchstones hopes to further develop existing partnerships with two other local organizations: Girl Scouts of Central Maryland (GSCM) and Seeds 4 Success. Last year, we worked with the Girl Scouts to produce a unique program at the Waxter Juvenile Detention Center for young women in Laurel, MD, which GSCM is hoping to expand. Likewise, Seeds 4 Success, which provides comprehensive, intensive, and academically focused programs to low-income youth and their families in Annapolis, has applied for a grant to bring Touchstones programs with a community engagement and civic leadership focus to afterschool programming at high schools across Anne Arundel County, MD.

The Touchstones staff is excited to move forward with each of these partnerships and continue our vital endeavors—be it in person or virtually—to foster critical thinking, collaboration, and community. For 34 years, we’ve been developing and implementing programs that yield a more inclusive, respectful, and connected society. Never before has our country been as ready as they are now to join us in these crucial endeavors.

Reflections from Within

By Jenn Macris

Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously wrote that “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Recently I have been going into the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCI-W) to facilitate their weekly Touchstones discussions. Since joining Touchstones, I have led or participated in many different types of Touchstones groups, but the discussions at MCI-W have been truly eye-opening—perhaps even life-changing. Touchstones brings an element of civilization and humanity to these women that they desire and deserve.

Touchstones has always been motivated to give a voice to those in society who are often not heard due to individual, community, and societal dynamics. Touchstones discussions serve as a platform for these women to reflect on what they truly know, believe, and feel and to remain open and welcoming to what their fellow inmates know, believe and feel— without judgment. This is generally unheard of in a prison setting.

When I entered MCI-W for the first time, I was uneasy. I had never been in a prison. I must have appeared hesitant when going into the prison classroom where the students, women felons, were still seated in their normal rows of seats. As soon as they saw me, however, they moved their desks into a circle, distributed the Touchstones volumes, and asked for the attendance sheet, all without my asking. Quickly, the group was ready; it was clear this activity was important to them. And I felt welcomed with almost no introduction—I was immediately part of this group of caring human beings.

Many of these women will be released and return to their families and communities. The skills they are learning now are helping them develop their sense of dignity and self-worth. Their efforts will yield a great ripple effect well beyond themselves, showing true change can happen. I am also evolving through my experiences in these Touchstones discussions. I am becoming more aware of my incorrect, often unconscious, stereotypes of who are in our prisons and what these women have to offer our society. I feel fortunate to engage with these women and witness their growth, and mine, and that I am given the opportunity to help introduce and foster much-needed civility and humanity in the prison environment.

Summer In The Park

By Sean Hutzell

Touchstones kicked off the school year with one last day of fun in the sun at Sandy Point Park in Annapolis, MD. Our dedicated team of staff and volunteers ensured an evening of excellent food, competitive games, and words from dedicated teachers about the importance of Touchstones programs in their classrooms. Funds raised during that event will provide 15 teachers with free access to Touchstones workshops this year!

Liam Dempsey, a Phoenix Academy teacher in Anne Arundel County Public Schools. “My students rarely feel as if their voices are of any value. Touchstones helps them to express themselves and be heard.”

Among those who attended were local Touchstones friends already active as advocates for Touchstones programs in the community, and some of those friends brought new folks to the event. It was great to welcome the newcomers into our ever-expanding circle of friends throughout the evening. Events on tap included an animated cornhole tournament. With some exceptionally skilled players scoring to the dismay of their opponents, and some also exceptionally wild throws offering amusement, the evening was quickly filled with sounds of laughter and camaraderie. After hard fought games, winners of the tournament walked away showcasing their victory with prizes of beach umbrellas. Guests also enjoyed other games, including bocce ball, before devouring delicious food catered by Loretta Hohmann, one of Touchstones’ fabulous Eastern Shore volunteers.

During the short program portion of the event, guests heard from two dedicated teachers: Suzan Powell, who uses Touchstones in her Employment Readiness Workshop at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, and Liam Dempsey, who teaches middle school English/ Language Arts at Phoenix Academy in Anne Arundel County Public Schools.

Suzan offered her experience with Touchstones in the prison system—how she first saw it in action late in 2015 and thought it was magical to see incarcerated

Charlie Green tosses a winning a bean bag
in the corn hole tournament.

women sitting in a circle collaborating and listening to each other. She wondered what program could make such engagement possible and asked the Touchstones staff to come into her classroom. Now she co-participates in weekly Touchstones discussions and helps model positive and constructive forms of thinking and interaction for women who will be released back into society. Liam, who works exclusively with students with learning and emotional disabilities requiring specialized educational support, spoke about privilege. He made note of the positive and negative connotations of a word that now speaks to advantages associated with race, gender, socio-economics, and educational attainment. Liam said it had been a privilege for him to work at Touchstones as our Summer Teaching Fellow and to have used Touchstones with his students last academic year—sharing with them the benefit of finding their voices. “My students,” he explained, “rarely feel as if their voices are of any value. Touchstones helps them to express themselves and be heard.” Liam is looking forward to returning to the classroom this week and continuing his work with his students in the Touchstones circle.

We at Touchstones are honored to have had so many friends join us in the park for our end of summer fundraiser and look forward to seeing you at our next event! Thank you again for helping to bring Touchstones to new educators and students this school year!

Supporting Anne Arundel County’s Women and Families

By Jenn Macris

Touchstones is honored to receive a 2019 grant from the local Annapolis-area giving circle, Anne Arundel Women Giving Together, a “philanthropic giving circle with more than 200 members who annually pool their funds and award grants to nonprofit organizations seeking to improve the lives of women and families in Anne Arundel County.” This generous $20,000 grant allows Touchstones to achieve two important goals at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCI-W) in Jessup, MD. The first is the continuation of a weekly program with women in a General Education Development (GED) class that prepares them for a high school equivalency diploma. Their work in Touchstones builds essential self-expression, literacy, and interpersonal skills.

The second is to expand and sustain programming in an Employment Readiness Workshop—an eight-week course that helps women develop and practice skills essential for gainful employment post-release. With this funding, an estimated 200 women incarcerated at MCI-W will participate in Touchstones programs over the next year. This unique and transformational program develops life, work and parenting skills, and promotes healthy decision-making, all which directly reduce recidivism. Touchstones has been invited to participate in the AAWGT Grants Showcase on Sept. 11, to highlight the vital work we do in support of those most in need in our communities. Local partnerships like this one with AAWGT allow Touchstones to develop a “boots-on- the-ground” core of friends, donors, and volunteers—an essential complement to our growing network of charitable support from around the world.

Learning & Teaching with Veterans

By Howard Zeiderman

Sometimes a name is uncanny. Such is the case with the Touchstones-National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) veterans’ program: Completing the Odyssey: A Journey Home. As Odysseus himself discovered, homecoming is not merely finding a geographical place but is a creative act of building a new emotional place for himself with those whom he loves. It is not a static situation but a fluid and evolving reality. Likewise, our work developing this program has been a journey. As experts in discussion programs, our path in program development has entailed learning from veterans who are expert with knowledge of barriers to homecoming. They know first-hand the trials associated with a return to civilian roles after life in the service. In true Touchstones fashion, this program has been as much a reciprocal learning process as it has been a reciprocal teaching one.

Three veterans, Joe Smith, Stephanie Morgan, and Cole Caudle broke a cardinal military rule never to volunteer. They volunteered first. In 2017, when Touchstones first received a grant from the NEH to develop this program, Joe, Stephanie, and Cole started the process of preparing to lead other veterans because they know the importance and difficulties of reintegration after separation from service. Equally valuable to the program’s success, they knew that skills veterans acquire in service must be available to civilian society. Along the way, they discovered how Touchstones offers a rare and unique chance for them to explore ideas and experiences with peers on the road to forming a new understanding of community.

Joe, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War, helped us understand that too often vets keep their experiences to themselves. He clarified ways in which full participation in discussion is essential, which helped us understand better the need for accessible texts from The Odyssey and specific accounts by more contemporary veterans. While one offers historical distance from personal experience, the others help veterans connect more deeply and explore their own perspectives.

Cole, a Marine Corps veteran with two tours in Afghanistan, knew the importance of collaboration and thinking outside the box. He never lets us forget how small group work in Touchstones is invaluable in building trust and instilling listening skills and sharing power. Cole brought our attention to the risk, and therefore courage, required to listen to another person. This type of listening is the most important precondition for collaboration.

Stephanie, also a Marine Corps veteran, focused us on always attending to and assessing the present situation one faces. Her military training alerted her to the vital role that precise and explicit assessment of successes and problems in discussion dynamics play in group formation and increasingly collaborative leadership. She helped us recognize more fully how integral the self and group evaluation are to our processes at Touchstones. And she sensitized us through her own actions to see how one learns to tailor one’s evaluations to what others can absorb and understand.

As we start a new round of Completing the Odyssey on Sept. 11, we are thankful that these veterans took and continue taking the risk to share their thoughts and offer input that enables us to create a program that is a living, joint effort. Stay tuned for more updates from the field.


By Stefanie Takacs

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Touchstones Discussion Project launched a new program specifically for veterans in 2017. Completing the Odyssey: A Journey Home compared ancient perspectives on service, war, separation, and homecoming with modern perspectives from members of America’s modern armed forces. Touchstones is the recipient of a second grant from the NEH that allows us to expand programming and replicate the original program, in addition to converting our Touchstones Leader’s Guide and Participant Guide into a print-on-demand set. We look forward to making this program available to other organizations and groups that bring veterans together to share their experiences during service and in their transition back to civilian life.

In addition, this funding provides for the development and implementation of a new program that explores how dialogues on the experiences of service and war can bring veterans and non-veteran civilians together through deeper and shared understanding. One of the most compelling outcomes from the NEH-funded Completing the Odyssey programs in 2017-2018 was a realization among most participants that their experiences must be understood within a greater context. Their lives and histories as members of the U.S. military do not define them in their entirety, nor do those experiences necessarily create insurmountable barriers and disconnects between themselves and those who have not served. “We are all human,” said one veteran participant about whether any civilian can ever understand a veteran’s experience. “No one can know what is inside my head, what my personal experience was,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean they can’t understand me as a person.”

His statement was a watershed moment for the group. For us, as program staff, it shed light on an essential element within the process of coming home: returning to community necessarily requires civilians at the table, too— listening, speaking, and learning from and with their fellow citizens how to build this new home where everyone has a place. This new program, which will be co-led by both a Touchstones-trained veteran and a civilian, explores a contemporary work, Tribe, Homecoming and Belonging, by journalist Sebastian Junger. It pairs each chapter from Tribe with selections from The Odyssey, weaving together themes of cooperation over individualism, bonds of family and group or tribe, empathy and resilience, the draw of home, and homecoming and concepts of home and trust.

Destined for Positive Change

By Stefanie Takacs, Executive Director

Since 2015, Touchstones staff have been running discussion programs within the school at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women, MCI-W, which is located in Jessup, Maryland. The facility houses approximately 800 women, many of whom received continuing education in the prison school. Some are working toward their high school General Education Development certificate, GED, while others take office management classes to augment their employability when they are released.

As more women entering MCI-W already have a high school diploma or GED, the Department of Labor and Licensing, which oversees prison education in Maryland, has intensified its focus on workforce preparation. Touchstones programs are a natural fit, with our emphasis on developing every person’s ability to articulate ideas and reasoning clearly and respectfully—to all people. And speaking is only part of the equation. Active listening is essential for communication that is appropriately responsive and rooted in understanding. This winter we are incorporating weekly Touchstones discussions into the new workforce preparation program at MCI-W.

Although women re-entering society and returning to the workforce must be able to communicate effectively, self-expression and self-regulation are among some of the greatest challenges they face. Without these socio-emotional skills, their return home— never mind employment— will likely be short-lived. While incarcerated women learn and cultivate specific skills for particular types of employment in their other classes, it is only in Touchstones that the women practice vital communication and leadership tools they will use in all sorts of situations—before they leave prison and every day afterward. With these abilities, the women are more fully prepared to effect real and positive, continuous change in themselves and their families.

In their Touchstones classes the women connect prior experience to new situations and begin to recognize that they have the intellectual tools to solve problems constructively—and by working with others. Together with the Touchstones staff and their teacher, they apply cooperation, tolerance, respect, and reflective thinking to real-world situations to explore new outcomes. In the words of the school principal, Touchstones makes a real difference in these women’s lives because it teaches them to “think differently.” It’s when we begin to see the continuous positive change in themselves and their families.