I was 26-years-old when asked to teach Bible to teenaged felons housed at the San Francisco juvenile hall. Until then, I never knew sixteen-year-olds committed murder or rape. Particularly, these young men all looked so innocent or at the most, like a room full of candy thieves.
Teaching teenaged felons, with lives on hold due to youthful anger, ignorance and mistakes was a challenge and a lot of fun. The challenge was getting and keeping their attention. The fun was watching over time as if the words, “I get it”, lit up like a neon sign in the pupils of my delinquent pupils.
However, what made me a better volunteer counselor was a couple of neon “I get it” moments, I experienced, away from the facility.
One such moment, was the result of me witnessing a street fight where one man stabbed another. Blood, gushed out of the victim’s upper thigh as if it were water spewing from a fire hydrant. A quick thinking bystander immediately began first aid. However, the paramedics actually saved the victim partly because they kept feeling a very faint heartbeat; whispering, “Please don’t give up on me.”
I began to apply that analogy to the hardened hearts of the young felons I ministered; metaphorically, I became their paramedic. I checked their pulse by telling true stories from my own life’s experiences, which also enabled me to detect a spiritual pulse more easily. I even witnessed some, not openly, but secretly practicing what I preached; love, hope and respect towards one another.
My friends Mike and Greg contributed to another epiphany I had, which caused me to miss-out on one real special moment. I recall it was, “Monday Night Football!” I used “The Game” to talk myself into being too tired to volunteer; therefore, I stayed home to watch it.
Greg, a boxing fan, told Mike he was going to San Jose that same Monday to see Muhammad Ali. Apparently, that lit up a neon moment for Mike, who worked at the facility where I volunteered. He suggested tagging along with the intent of asking The Champ to take part in a video, aimed at encouraging the kids at the juvenile hall.
Now at the event, Mike and Greg waited patiently. Then one of them slipped Ali a note that read, “The Kids at the San Francisco juvenile hall could really use a lift.”
Ali, who was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, read the note. He then leaned over to his driver and said, “Get the car.”
They proceeded to follow Mike and Greg 40 miles back to San Francisco and up to the juvenile hall.
With video camera rolling, they all entered the building. Mike is shouting from behind his camera, “I got The Champ with me; I got The Champ with me!” Staff instantly turned into wide-eyed children themselves.
Ali was escorted up to each unit where he visited everyone. He shook hands with staff, encouraged all the kids including shadowboxing with some housed in my, maximum-security unit.
The following evening, several detainees shared with me their special moment. “Fresh Dan”, a 17-year-old award winning thespian, always put on an act. This night however, Dan was not acting; he put up his dukes and gave me a big neon smile, describing how he shadowboxed with The Volunteer Champ.