I wasn’t prepared for what I would see that day.
You see, I grew up going to prisons. I had walked down death row, even seen the execution chamber at Angola Prison. But nothing could prepare me for the sight of the kids locked up at Burruss. I later recounted the memory to a friend: “It was like seeing scared animals that had been caught in a cage.” The juveniles incarcerated at Burruss are 17 years old. Many of them are no bigger than the middle schoolers I coach in baseball. They are skinny, their skin reflects a lack of sunshine, and their haircuts are embarrassingly bad. Seeing these kids each and every week hurts me every time. They’ve committed crimes and they are paying the price, but my heart always longs to tell the, “You were not created for this.” Terrance was one of the first incarcerated juveniles that I ever worked with. He was enrolled in our Pups in Prison program, where the juvenile boys met with a dog trainer every week and learned to feed, care for, and train dogs. He was a star student. He went above and beyond on every assignment. He helped clean the classroom and would sit there for hours, petting those sweet, sweet dogs. When Terrance turned 18 he was transferred to the adult population. He disappeared. No more classes. I had no idea if he had been moved to another prison or had been released. Finally, he showed up to horticulture class one day. His eyes were hollow; I knew he had probably been using drugs. We welcomed him back to class nonetheless. Occasionally, he would slide in the back of the class, always late, never prepared. He rarely turned in assignments. Terry was floundering. All we could do was pray for him. A few weeks ago, Terrance came up to me and said, “I’m finally clean. Can I come back to horticulture class?” A massive smile broke over my face. I gave the class an assignment - write a letter to your younger self and share a piece of advice. Here is Terrance’s letter: “If I could go back in time and tell myself one thing, just one piece of advice, it would be ‘if you can avoid seeking the approval of others, your power is limitless.’ Though I’ve gotten a lot better about this over the years I still struggle with seeking everyone’s approval. Since I was a boy I aways wanted to fit in, to be like everyone else. But deep down I knew I was different. I was different from my classmates, my friends, even my own family. I didn’t see this as being unique, but as me being ‘weird.’ So I put on this mask that was always smiling but behind the mask, tears silently ran down my cheeks. Seeking everyone’s approval led to me doing a lot of things I didn’t really want to do. I felt pressured to fit in and follow the normal standard. I smoked and did dumb things to impress my friends. I joined sports, kept a girlfriend, and went to church to meet my family’s criteria. As I grew up, especially when I got incarcerated, I realized I was living my life by others’ expectations. I should have just been myself, and only want my own approval. Now I feel like I’m in tune with myself. I still struggle because I feel as if God dislikes me. But deep down I feel his love. I only wish I realized this and applied it sooner. Maybe I’d be farther down this road.” Why do I tell you this? Because I would love for each of you reading this email to share what YOU would tell your younger self. We would love to share your advice with Terrance and the 30+ 17-year-old boys incarcerated at Burruss. If you want to share a word of wisdom or encouragement, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can remain fully anonymous. And if you would like to support HeartBound and our programming, you may do so by visiting www.givebutter.com/HeartBound. Thank you, and God bless. Spencer