In a special ceremony at the Arlington County jail, a 42-year-old inmate was about to receive her high school equivalency certificate. She looked out into the audience for the person, Kanah Bray, who had helped her achieve this proud moment.
Bray caught her gaze and was surprised by what she saw. The woman in the jail jumpsuit had applied makeup for the occasion by using a red candy fireball for lipstick and lining her eyes with a No. 2 pencil. In her hair was a ribbon fashioned out of silver gum wrappers.
"She told me she had done it for me," said Bray, 51. "It was just so touching. I can't tell you how much I love what I do."
In a way, what Bray does is fight crime behind bars. She accomplishes this by teaching inmates practical skills that she hopes will enable them to lead more productive lives when they are released.
Bray, a career planning specialist for the U.S. Secret Service, is a volunteer for a group called the Offender Aid & Restoration program. For a quarter of a century, the private nonprofit has striven to "restore" offenders in Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church to being responsible members of the community.
Tomorrow, the group, known simply as "OAR," will celebrate its 25th anniversary and salute the hundreds of volunteers who believe in the goal and have worked to help achieve it.
"We're trying to take individuals and help them to become better neighbors," said Cynthia N. Hull, executive director of Arlington's OAR for the last eight years. "With some exceptions, inmates respond to someone who wants them to do better, just like you and I do."
The organization's strategy is to "put the broken egg in shape," said David L. Manning, director of OAR's program services. Staff and volunteers do this through support groups or on an individual basis.
In some cases, that means teaching inmates things that most people take for granted, such as how to get a job--and keep it, Manning said. Or how to follow a budget and pay taxes.
Problems are dealt with head on, whether they are issues involving substance abuse or anger management, Manning said. Many inmates lack the education they need to succeed in life, and volunteers tutor those, preparing for the General Educational Development (GED) exam or just studying basic literacy. The group also reaches beyond the bars. Nonviolent offenders are placed and monitored in community service projects, giving 35,000 hours of labor a year to the community, Hull said.
To ensure a more successful transition for inmates when they are released, the group also provides referrals for jobs, housing, transportation, food and clothing, Hull said. Sometimes something as basic as getting proper identification can become an insurmountable hurdle, she added.
As it celebrates its anniversary tomorrow night at a special dinner, the group plans to use proceeds from the event to establish a scholarship fund for people who have demonstrated that they can keep a job and want more specialized training, said David Shorr, president of OAR's board and a 10-year volunteer.
"I felt right from the beginning this was an organization well equipped to support you," Shorr said. "It can sometimes be tricky working with criminal offenders. It's a real meet-you-halfway proposition."
"It's not the most glamorous type of work," said John Reibling, a social worker and volunteer for the last five years. "It's a neglected population that doesn't get much attention. I think it's important for older men to mentor younger men, to provide an example."
Hull acknowledges that the group's mission is not always an easy one, and that change in behavior can be a very slow, incremental process.
With 6,500 clients a year and a staff of 14, the organization relies heavily on its volunteers. To sign up, a candidate must be at least 21, take 20 hours of preservice training, submit to a criminal background check and commit to at least one hour a week, she said.
"It's fascinating to see the people willing to donate their time," said Melinda Douglas, Alexandria public defender. "Professionals who want to give extra time on the weekend. They're people who are in corrections, grandparents, retired. They really cover a spectrum."
As a prosecutor in Arlington, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Abigail J. Raphael sends people to jail as part of her job. Yet, Raphael not only joined OAR, she served as president of its board.
"People wonder why a prosecutor would like to be involved with an organization like OAR," Raphael said. "I believe that OAR programs help to reduce crime. While serving a jail sentence, a person can learn how to read, can have a mentor, can get assistance in how to find and keep a job. Then they are much less likely to commit another crime when they're released from jail. So to me, it just makes sense."
Mike Dante, a volunteer for nearly 10 years, divides his time between the Arlington and Alexandria jails, where a separate housing unit has been established for "Women Empowered For Change." The unit addresses special needs of female inmates, including domestic violence and parenting issues.
Dante believes most people would be struck to see how "human" inmates are.
"They're just like your neighbors," said Dante, 64, a retired physicist. "They could be your brother or your son. They've made mistakes. They've made very bad decisions. They very frequently come to realize they can do something with their lives."
Bray, the Secret Service employee, is convinced that the OAR program reduces recidivism. Of the estimated 75 inmates she has worked with, she is not aware of any of them returning to the jail.
She gets emotional when she talks about the 42-year-old woman she helped in the Arlington County Adult Detention Center. Once a week for a year, they worked together on her writing skills, letter by letter, word by word. Eventually, the woman was able to write to the children she left behind.
Bray was delighted when the woman received the highest marks on her GED exam, but four years later, after the woman was released from a federal prison, she received the biggest reward of all for her work.
"She wrote me a 10-page letter," said Bray, her voice cracking. "It sounded just like me."
CAPTION: David L. Manning, foreground, leads a counseling session at the Arlington County jail for inmates, from left, Todd Jackson, Ronald Sowells and Alphonse Coats.
CAPTION: Inmate Jason Andre participates in a counseling session as part of the Offender Aid & Restoration program.
CAPTION: Program Director David L. Manning, background, says OAR's strategy is to "put the broken egg in shape."