Literacy Highland Lakes Receives Criminal Justice Volunteer Award
Literacy Highland Lakes received an award for volunteering its literacy services
to female inmates at the Ellen Halbert Unit in Burnet during the Governor’s 2014
Criminal Justice Volunteer ceremony in Austin on April 17. In attendance were
Literacy Highland Lakes Executive Director Sally May (front, left), board
members Sue Wieland and JoAnn Donnelly and volunteer Genie Boyd; and
Texas Board of Criminal Justice chairman Oliver Bell (back, left), keynote
speaker Judge Cathy Cochran and Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Executive Director Brad Livingston. Courtesy photo
Posted on 04 June 2014
BURNET — "I got a 510 on the essay!" beamed the woman standing in the single-file line, the required formation for movement within the Ellen Halbert Unit.
Genie Boyd of Horseshoe Bay, a Literacy Highland Lakes volunteer, turned and spotted the inmate she had tutored for the writing section of the GED test and smiled back. The 510 score on the essay is tantamount to passing with flying colors.
"I told you that you could do it," Boyd replied.
In April, the Windham School District, which oversees the inmate educational program, recognized Literacy Highland Lakes efforts during the Governor 2014 Criminal Justice Volunteer ceremony in Austin.
For many of the female inmates in the Ellen Halbert Unit, earning a GED is the first academic success in their lives. According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the average inmate in Texas has a fifth-grade education, and giving inmates the ability to learn is one of the best ways to reduce their chances of re-offending and maintain public safety for all citizens. So two years ago, when the inmates in Burnet could no longer take classes, their opportunity to re-enter society with a high-school equivalency credential was essentially handcuffed.
In 2011, the Windham School District, the educational program within the Texas prison system, experienced a 27 percent funding cut from the legislature. Hundreds of employee positions were eliminated system-wide, forcing the closure of educational programs at six substance abuse treatment facilities, including the Ellen Halbert Unit.
Trudy Stucky of Sunrise Beach has taught Bible studies at the prison since 1996 and remembered the aftermath of the district’s departure.
"Even the classroom furniture was moved out," she said. "There was such a cloud of disappointment over the whole facility. I heard it compared to mourning a death."
Stucky knew her friend, Genie Boyd, tutored adults in GED preparation as a volunteer for Literacy Highland Lakes. As they were talking one day in the summer of 2012, she asked Boyd if the literacy organization might consider teaching the incarcerated women at the Burnet facility. When Boyd presented the idea to Executive Director Sally May, the answer was a resounding "yes."
Beginning in March 2013, volunteers from Literacy Highland Lakes have helped the Windham School District stretch its budget for literacy classes at the Ellen Halbert Unit. A certified teacher from the district, experienced in working in a prison environment, coordinates with the volunteers. The volunteers come to the Halbert Unit twice a week over 10 weeks to help offenders prepare for the GED test. Windham educators then follow up by administering the GED test to the inmates. Last year, 41 inmates received their GEDs.
In recognition of their dedication, the volunteers of Literacy Highland Lakes received the Windham School District’s Judy Burd Award during the Governor’s 2014 Criminal Justice Volunteer ceremony in Austin on April 17. May accepted the award, which was presented by Oliver Bell, chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, and Texas Department of Criminal Justice Executive Director Brad Livingston.
"These men and women give their time not for monetary reward," Livingston said. "They volunteer because they have a personal passion in seeing others succeed. We are grateful for their selfless dedication."
According to May, part of their role is to be cheerleaders for the women to reach their goals. In turn, the literacy volunteers are impressed by the responsiveness and dedication of the women at the Ellen Halbert Unit.
"The women talk about using the GED to better their lives, a springboard into a vocational or trade school," May said. "That’s what keeps us really fired up."
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