RAY BROOK — Brenda Terry-Roberson feels her volunteer work at the Federal Correctional Institution at Ray Brook is important to the inmates.
As teacher of a parenting class at the prison, Terry-Roberson is hoping to help inmates lead more productive lives.
"I'm trying to teach them to become better fathers, and I'm doing something for the less fortunate."
Terry-Roberson has been teaching at Ray Brook one night a week for about two years. She also counsels inmates suffering from post-traumatic-stress syndrome.
"I try to get them through another day," she said. "A lot of inmates are like sponges — they really want to learn."
Terry-Roberson is one of 31 volunteers at Ray Brook who help give the facility's 1,046 inmates services in education, health, substance abuse, parenting and religion.
Most of the volunteers are connected with religious services of all denominations.
Ray Brook officials need even more volunteers, to serve in many areas, especially in the education and job-training fields.
"We want to teach our inmates skills and even how to volunteer," said Barbara Darrah, Ray Brook's volunteer services coordinator. "Our inmates do a lot of work for the community."
Darrah said the inmates also learn vocational and job-hunting skills from volunteers.
"The inmates like working with the volunteers. It rewards both of them in many ways."
Volunteers do everything from teaching art classes to counseling inmates. Darrah said the prison is now seeking a volunteer to teach guitar.
Most volunteers are employed elsewhere. Many have been involved at the prison for years. Volunteers range in age from 18 to senior citizen.
They are important to many of the prison's departments, including education.
Federal prisons mandate that inmates without high-school diplomas earn them before release. About 780 inmates are enrolled in an education program at Ray Brook.
Ive Gonzalez, the prison's education supervisor, said her department tries to teach inmates reading and other life skills.
"Volunteers have a lot of opportunities in this area."
Prison volunteer services may also be valuable to college students interested in entering the criminal-justice field.
John Fehlner, a unit manager at Ray Brook, strongly recommends that such students volunteer.
"This is a way for them to get their foot in the door and make contacts," he said. "They'll get experience in the field and see if it's for them."
Terry-Roberson thinks that all interested people should try volunteering, but she warned that working at the prison isn't for everyone.
"It takes a dedicated, committed person to do this. It's invaluable experience and very rewarding."
But she said that volunteers, especially women, need to be careful.
"You have to be on your toes every minute. Volunteers are well-trained by staff for many situations, and there's always a staff member watching you, but always watch your conduct."
Terry-Roberson said women should not dress in revealing clothing of any manner nor should they wear high heels or dresses. Excessive makeup and jewelry are also discouraged.
She said women need to conduct themselves in a demure, respectful manner at all times and not speak of issues like personal background.
"Many women wear or do things without realizing it," she said. "I don't think women have to lose their femininity, but be careful."
However, she does want to see more women volunteer.
Terry-Roberson said she felt uncomfortable around the inmates during her first time teaching.
"It was a little frightening because I didn't know how they would react to me."
But, she said, now she wishes she had started teaching inmates 20 years earlier.
"I love it. Teaching is in my blood."
Inmates regularly tell Terry-Roberson of their appreciation of her services. They also seem to miss her whenever she is forced to miss a class.
"We're their lifeline to the outside," she said. "It makes their day."
But she also realizes that she won't "save" some inmates.
"Hopefully, I have touched some lives."
For more information or to volunteer, call Barbara Darrah at 891-5400, ext. 283.
Janice Marra is a reporter for the Press-Republican.