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What happens to volunteer education programs when the Internet is as invisible as COVID-19

by Yulia Strokova, Samantha Schalit

by Marcos Guinoza | Sao Paulo, BRAZIL

Two months ago, Kathie Klarreich, journalist and founder of Exchange for Change (E4C), was in the classroom at least three days a week teaching writing courses, supervising other instructors' classes and meeting with student facilitators.

Then the pandemic forced educators around the world to transition to virtual classrooms and navigate new technology for their online classes.

But Kathie and her team’s work ground to a screeching halt. They prisons, where the Internet is as invisible as COVID-19.

On March 6, E4C students from Dade Correctional Institution took part in an inaugural poetry event. Since March 11, all contact between inmates and visitors, or volunteers, was banned.

After several weeks of worrying, Kathie finally felt some relief. She received several handwritten letters from her students. One them, Gustavo Guerra, wrote:

"…Three days ago, two county correctional officers tested positive for COVID-19. The same day, our administration shut down all programs: chapel, education, and library…

It has only been three days, and I miss my friends, my brothers. I cannot call them on the phone or write them an email like the public can just check up in them. I miss the myriad activities we participated in together. God only knows when I will be able to see them and have an intelligent conversation about writing again.

Finding purpose while serving a natural life sentence has been difficult. These activities gave me purpose. Being involved kept me positive and helped me maintain my sanity and subsequent sobriety. And the thought of a drawn-out quarantine frankly makes my blood pressure rise and brings tears to my eyes, even as I type this essay.

This whole pandemic scares me. I fear for my family. I fear for my friends. And I fear for my state of mind when this is finally over.

In the meantime, I continue to hold my breath when I am forced to walk by a gaggle of officers. I wash my hands and sing the ABC's until I finish (it's a 20-second song). I read books and trade them off in the quad for another one. I watch and listen to the news, and I worry. And at the end of the day, I write. Because writing allows me to regurgitate my anxieties on a blank page, thus helping me manage my fears. At least until the next newscast, which will feed this ever-present corona state of mind." Read more here.

Kathie and her team believe every voice has value, and that when people have the ability to listen and be heard, stronger, safer communities are formed.

Since E4C’s courses are postponed, Kathie is collecting additional essays from her students to include in an anthology she calls 'The COVID Collection.’

“We’re trying to prepare the community to receive them in the same way that we’re helping to prepare the inmates for their release,” Kathie said. “And by getting their voices out, it’s a way to put an end to this bridge-gap.”

With her colleagues from the Florida Coalition for Higher Education in Prison, Kathie is also working to keep the incarcerated and the staff safe.

Florida has the third-largest prison population in the country, totaling roughly 95,000 people. Masks are still limited. Testing for the virus is not available. Social distancing is not an option-given the structure of the prison housing structures.

Four weeks ago, E4C launched a GoFundMe campaign that secured 10,000 bars of soap for eight correctional facilities. It also delivered 50 gallons of hand sanitizer to staff.

Collaboration is what could make the biggest difference on both sides of the fence. It’s core to E4C’s mission and why Kathie launched the letter exchanges between incarcerated students and writers studying on the outside in 2009. E4C has partnered with the University of Miami, Miami Dade College, Florida Atlantic University, and Ransom Everglades School for creative and intellectual engagement.

With a pen and paper, students can realize the value of events in their own lives and become agents of change across different communities in the way they may otherwise have never the way they may otherwise have never listened and be heard.


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