I recently came across a statistic that says a lot about the people of Idaho. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, Idahoans volunteer at a higher rate than just about anywhere else. In fact, we’re second on the list of 50 states, just behind Utah, for the number of citizens who donate their time to help others.
At the Idaho Department of Correction, we depend on volunteers. More than 1,100 of them work in our correctional facilities. In addition to conducting religious services, volunteers teach inmates practical life skills such as how to get a job, stick to a budget and be better parents.
However, we don’t have those same connections in our Probation and Parole side of the house. Frankly, that’s been our fault. Even back when I was probation and parole officer, we didn’t truly understand how much these volunteers and community organizations could help.
That doesn’t make sense. Not only are these volunteers willing and capable, but many of them also represent organizations that already have just the kind of resources offenders need to transition from prison back to society — things such as food and clothing, even housing and jobs. Our probation and parole officers are some of the best in the country, but could even be made stronger with having the offender connected to the community.
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We need to think differently. So the Idaho Department of Correction is launching an innovative program aimed at recruiting a select few from Idaho’s army of volunteers to mentor offenders.
IDOC’s Community Mentor program will match volunteers with offenders while they’re still in prison. From the day the offender walks out the prison gate, their mentor will be there to guide them as they take on challenges such as searching for employment and housing.
But it takes more than a job and an apartment to become a law-abiding citizen. So along the way, the mentor will help the offender grow roots in the community by connecting them with activities involving the offender’s faith, their family and their positive avocations.
The Community Mentor program is not for everyone. The mentors will be carefully screened, trained and supervised. Former probationers and parolees, with track records of clean, successful living, will be welcome to apply. We need to take advantage of their experience and wisdom.
We often look to government for solutions. But I believe that community and faith-based groups have much to offer when it comes to changing hearts and turning around lives — especially here in Idaho, where the volunteer spirit remains strong.
To learn more about IDOC’s Community Mentor program and apply to serve as a mentor, visit the Volunteer Services section of the department’s website at idoc.idaho.gov.
Kevin H. Kempf is director of Idaho Department of Correction.