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Respect, recognition are keys to effective volunteer programs.

Not long after I started my professional career as director of a non-profit agency, I delivered a speech at a conference. My topic was the decriminalization of prostitution. The eminent judge who introduced me knew me from my years of volunteer work. He joked to the audience that I was now being paid for what I used to do for free. It was a great lead-in considering the topic, and it also has relevance for a discussion about volunteerism.

I was a volunteer for almost 20 years before I started getting paid for my services. While I am grateful to receive a paycheck, I am no more "professional" now than when I was a volunteer. That's something to remember if you have a volunteer program. Volunteers are staff: Whether a person is paid or receives another type of reward is inconsequential.

Volunteers should be appreciated and respected as professionals. They must get some compensation for their services. Because they don't get paid, they should receive feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment. If they aren't having these feelings, they don't belong in your program. I make it a point to find a better volunteer placement for people who aren't enjoying their work at my agency.

The Program for Female Offenders, where I serve as executive director, helps incarcerated women and released offenders in Pennsylvania. Our staff and volunteers visit the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh three times a week and the State Correctional Institution at Muncy on a less frequent but regular basis. We help women at these facilities adjust to incarceration and deal with family and legal problems they cannot resolve themselves.

For released offenders, the agency operates a training center, two residential facilities and a day treatment program. These facilities and the agency's headquarters are located in Pittsburgh.

At the training center, offenders receive training in remedial education, computers, GED preparation and life skills. We also help women find jobs and cope with problems that may arise. Participation is voluntary.

Women are placed at the agency's two residential centers by court order as a community corrections alternative to incarceration at the Allegheny County Jail. The first center, the Program Center, is a work release facility serving 34 women. Residents must have jobs or be enrolled in training or education classes. They also must perform community service work. The center provides a parenting program and day care services for residents' children.

The second center, the Allegheny County Treatment Alternatives Center, provides treatment and work release services for 35 men and 15 women with substance abuse problems. It is jointly run by our agency, the county and a local hospital's substance abuse treatment center.

The day treatment program serves 14 women, all of whom must report daily to the agency's community services office as a condition of probation. The program provides employment and support services.

The Program for Female Offenders serves more than 500 women a year in its Pittsburgh programs. We have 53 paid staff and 40 to 50 volunteers. In addition, the agency has affiliated projects in Allentown and Harrisburg.

Recruiting and Training Volunteers

Because offenders have broken laws--and not just fallen temporarily on hard times--volunteer work in corrections differs from most other types of volunteer work. Volunteers may ask themselves, "Why should I help these |bad' people?" and "Should I be afraid of them?"

Our response begins by recognizing that volunteers represent the community at large. We believe the community needs to learn about offenders and then play an important role in ensuring that offenders do not again become a threat to society. Our staff take this message to the community when we recruit volunteers. When the community understands that people in the criminal justice system are those whom the welfare and education systems have failed, we receive a positive response.

A key to effective recruitment is allaying potential volunteers' fears about working with offenders. One way we deal with this is by discussing our program's low recidivism rate. If most offenders don't commit new crimes, volunteers need not be afraid.

In work related to criminal justice, the training a volunteer receives is crucial. It must include "be wary" guidelines and discussions about realistic expectations.

The volunteer component in our program began with the concept of women helping women. Volunteers were recruited, trained in effective listening skills and matched with released offenders. The assignment was simple (but not easy): to be a friend.

What is the basis of friendship? Friendship is a mutual relationship where each party has needs, some of which can be met by the other party. Just as "love at first sight" is rare, seldom is there "friendship at first sight." Our early experiences with volunteers were disappointing. Offenders often abused relationships and on occasion even victimized volunteers. We soon realized that our project's goals and expectations were too loosely defined. We changed the focus of the volunteer work from providing friendship to accomplishing specific tasks. Volunteers now:

* serve as tutors at the skill training center and handle

most GED preparation;

* provide transportation to parenting sessions at our

residential centers;

* teach women hobby skills such as knitting, sewing

and dressmaking;

* teach computer and job search skills at the skill training

center; and

* provide gifts for women and their children every


If these tasks lead to friendship, that's an added bonus. In fact, many bonds have been formed between our volunteers and offenders and their children. Our volunteer hobby skills teacher is like a surrogate mother to some of our clients. Other volunteers have hired offenders or found them jobs.

There is a place for a volunteer staff in community corrections, but these volunteers must be placed in situations where they feel comfortable and safe. Here are some guidelines we have found effective:

1. Don't take offenders home or lend them money.

2. Don't share your troubles with offenders.

3. Learn to listen effectively.

4. Don't try to solve offenders' problems.

5. Don't make judgments.

6. Report irregular behavior to the agency staff. This is

not disloyal.

7. Don't provide drugs or alcohol to offenders.

8. Don't always expect to be appreciated.

9. Do have empathy and patience.

10. Do care.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Arnold, Charlotte S.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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