I didn’t want to go.
It was a beautiful Tuesday night. The temperatures on this last day of August had hit the mid-nineties, and by the time early evening had rolled around the weather was perfect for an evening ride on the motorcycle. I hadn’t been riding much as of late, so to pass up this evening felt like a crime. But I had made a committment and I was going to honor it.
Earlier this summer, a church group of which I am a member had decided to spend an evening serving and sharing dinner with the residents at the Dismas Family Farm. The Dismas Family Farm is a self-supporting, working farm for former prisoners of the Massachusetts’ Penal system trying to transition their way back into society. Being a working farm, the residents all share the chores that go along with operating the facility. A stroll through the barn reveals everything from chickens to llama. Crop production includes fruits, vegetables, and even popcorn. There is also an extensive woodworking shop that was producing bird feeders at the time of our visit. The Dismas Family Farm, designed to be a stop on the road to recovery for these nonviolent former prisoners who all seemed to have drug addiction in common in their past, is nationally recognized as one of the top reentry programs in the country.
During a presentation made to our church group earlier this year, we were told by one of the volunteers that a big part of the reentry program is to have groups such as ours come to the farm, prepare a meal to share with the residents, and to spend time getting to know them. The volunteer brought with him that evening one of the residents who briefly shared his story with us. He made it clear how important it was that the former prisoners get to spend time with local residents. He also told us of the importance that these men get the opportunity to see that people do care about them and want to help them succeed. Only the most selfish of individuals would not want to take part in such a positive program.
Meet Mr. self-centered himself.
Putting aside my selfish feelings, I loaded up the macaroni salad and headed to Oakham. The trip out was a time for me to study the perfect riding weather while experiencing some trepidation. How on earth is a salesman like me going to fit in with ex-cons? I’m not a wimp, but I am certainly not carrying the edge necessary to survive in a Massachusetts’ prison.
As I made the final left turn onto Lincoln Road I remember thinking how out-of-the-way this place is located. Seriously, I think this is where crickets go when they need peace and quiet. The farm was a typical old New England farm. The farmhouse sat next to the road, complete with farmer’s porch overlooking some of the fields. Opposite was a red barn that appeared to be well maintained. The setting immediately began to settle the uneasy feeling lingering in the pit of my stomach.
What nervousness remained was quickly dashed as I began to meet the men who resided at the farm. They were quick to shake my hand, offer an introduction, and thank me for coming. They obviously had done this before and knew how to make an uneasy visitor feel welcome. After helping shuck some corn, I headed out to the porch to mingle. It was here where God, with a gentle slap to the back of the head, reminded me why He wanted me to put away my needs for the evening.
I met a young man named Brian. Brian is 26 years-old, although his energy and enthusiasm had me originally thinking he was younger. Not knowing how to start a conversation with this young man with whom I shared very little, I simply asked, “How long have you been here?” After informing me he arrived in April, I followed with an inquiry as to how he arrived. He told me he had been born in Cambridge to parents who were addicts. A move to Roxbury saw him starting to get into trouble, which didn’t subside following moves to Winchendon and eventually Gardner. He told me of how he got hooked onto heroine and that he has been trying to get clean since he was 18. Brian proudly stated that he had gone 11 months without any drugs before a relapse restarted the clock. You could see in his eyes that he was truly disappointed with himself that he had used again and that he truly wanted to be clean. Brian spoke of his little daughter with whom he is not very close.
“I need to change that,” he said. “It is going to take time, but I do want to build a relationship with her. I am ashamed to say, I sold my daughter for drugs.”
The fact that he didn’t mean this literally took nothing away from the depth of that statement. In fact, I think it added to the importance of what he was saying, that the consequences of his actions have broken his heart. Early on he spoke like he was a victim of his upbringing, but then shifted gears and made it clear he no longer believed this to be true. He wants to take responsibility for his actions and is working hard to do what is right.
Brian then took me for a tour of the barn. I commented on how different this must be for him to be around the animals after growing up in the environment of his youth. He made it clear that this farm was about as far away from that as he could possibly get. His words were obvious, but watching him around the animals provided a glimpse into the changes taking place while at Dismas. As he spoke, he petted a couple of the sheep and rams through the fence of their pens. The animals approached Brian and genuinely seemed to want to be near him. There was a mutual respect that I couldn’t help but notice.
Brian continued to give me a tour of the barn, concluding by showing me how to determine if an egg is appropriate to be sold. What struck me most about my guide was the level of enthusiasm this city kid was displaying for his temporary home. These men are not forced to be here, and Brian made it clear through his words and his actions that he was thankful for the opportunity to spend healing time as a working resident. Brian also informed me he worked at one of the local pizza shops.
Over dinner there was friendly banter back-and-forth between the residents and their guests. I had the opportunity to get to know a couple of the other residents, who were equally as warm and open. The range of ages struck me as I spoke with young men like Brian as well as men quite a few years my senior. Their stories were all different, but the results were the same. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had been born under different circumstances, raised in the tough streets of Southie then ruled by Whitey Bulger as one resident had rather than the quiet ways of Paxton, if I too could have been dining at this table each night sharing my story with visitors?
Thankfully, I haven’t been put through that test so we will never know. But I took away from that evening a reminder that there are people who have paid their debt, and with the help of people who care, want to become whole again. For men like Brian, reaching out for help while helping themselves as well, we owe it not to turn our back on these ex-cons, but to embrace these people fighting for their lives. The government can’t, and shouldn’t, be responsible for helping those working so hard to pick themselves up. That responsibility lies with the people who will be sharing their communities with these souls with a troubled past but a bright future.
As I left the farm I reflected on the evening, and the difference between my feelings then as opposed to the feelings I had driving to the Dismas House. I was truly moved by these men and thankful that, once again, I had been reminded of just how wrong stereotypes can be. These were men who had stumbled but weren’t looking for a second chance, instead they were men earning a second chance. Then I thought about how thankful I was that I had been a part of this evening, and how glad I was that I hadn’t decided to ride the motorcycle instead. Just the thought of my not wanting to go earlier in the evening reminded me of one thing.
No matter how much I try not to be, sometimes I can still be a selfish ass.