John Kelly said he just sort of fell into a life of community service. His desire to help others led him down many different career paths. He was a priest, a teacher and dean at Serra High School, and later the founding director of the Samaritan House in San Mateo County. He taught kids English and Latin at Serra and helped grow the Samaritan House —which now provides a wide range of basic needs — into a strong human services agency serving the most needy in San Mateo County. Through teaching and working at the Samaritan House, he learned how to address the needs of a community. He had a window into the world of those who were deeply struggling, but had never thought about society’s challenges in terms of the criminal population, that is until he visited San Quentin State Prison.
A friend invited him to conduct a spiritual weekend at the prison. “My first reaction was, ‘who in the world would want to go into San Quentin State Prison?’” he said. He grew more skeptical of visiting the prison when he heard that if the prisoners take you hostage, the guards won’t help, he said. But his fears were washed away when he first met with who he calls residents there in 1991. “After that one weekend, I decided I was home,” he said. “It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.”
Kelly, 84, lives in a senior community in San Mateo, and still visits San Quentin three times a week. He talks with groups of 15 to 20 residents about a variety of topics, from anger management, empathy, forgiveness and staying connected with family. The degree of sharing that goes on in these groups is far beyond what he has witnessed in groups outside of prison. “It’s just so straightforward and honest,” he said.
His work at the prison has turned him into an advocate for restorative justice. The main idea behind restorative justice is the idea that human nature can change, said Kelly.
One part of restorative justice program at San Quentin is encouraging criminals to take full responsibility for their actions. The program also focuses on the victims coming to terms with their grievances. Sometimes the victims will visit the prison and talk directly to the perpetrators about what it has taken for them to reconcile and forgive, said Kelly. “Some powerful sharing goes on,” he said.
A third element of restorative justice is making sure the next generation is not doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Residents explore what life circumstances lead them to their own criminal activity, and through this they discover that their upbringings had a lot to do with it.
“Imagine being a kid at San Mateo High School and you see kids driving up to school in brand-new cars”
One resident who speaks at the prison starts his talk by saying, “When I was born, my dad was in prison and my mom was a dope addict,” he said. “Some of their stories are unbelievable.” When Kelly learned about their backgrounds, he discovered the residents were simply leading the same lives and making the same mistakes as the people who raised them.
“They say, ‘it was my turn to do what was happening to me,’” he said.
But some of these people who are victims of terrifying childhoods can change, he said. “When people inside change, they become the most powerful advocates,” he said. “There are some very fine human beings in San Quentin State Prison. I tell them, ‘you have a wisdom that this world needs.”
A chance for change
The people who end up in prison are lucky if they are afforded an opportunity to change, said Kelly. He acknowledges that not all people will change because some have suffered too much trauma at an early age, but said prisons do not do enough to help those who can change. “The system lacks the ability to discriminate between those who are rehabilitatable and those who aren’t,” he said.
“The first response when someone becomes incarcerated should be to rehabilitate, not to simply keep them away from society,” said Kelly. Most prisoners are not as lucky as the ones in San Quentin, which has about 3,000 volunteers, said Kelly. “They get excited to transfer to San Quentin,” he said of the residents. “They are so excited to finally get to do something with their lives.”
Basic needs for kids
Along with helping criminals and victims, the concept of restorative justice focuses on addressing the issues that lead to incarceration. For a community to prevent the cycle of incarceration, schools need to address the basic needs of kids, said Kelly. “Imagine being a kid at San Mateo High School and you see kids driving up to school in brand-new cars,” he said. “And when you go home, you’re lucky if there’s dinner on the table.” The disparity between rich and poor is growing and these disparities affect how kids perceive the world, said Kelly. “It’s going to affect your view,” he said.
Teachers should realize that they have to do more than teach, he said. They have to look at what kind of support network each child has or does not have. The problem is teachers lack resources themselves. Prison guards, through working overtime, make twice as much as teachers, said Kelly. “We don’t respect the teaching profession enough,” he said.
Kelly did not have longtime aspirations to develop a service organization like Samaritan House, but the task found him. In 1984, before the multitude of vibrant community assistance organizations existed on the Peninsula, Kelly was helping out with a program to distribute meals through the Martin Luther King Community Center in San Mateo. “Before I knew it, they were twisting my arm to run it,” said the San Francisco native. Before he knew it, he was enlisted by the county to help establish a system that would provide basic needs for people.
Samaritan House came to the Peninsula in 1985, and Kelly was named the director. What started as a referral service grew into a direct service provider offering a shelter, food assistance, medical clinics, case management, clothing and worker resources. “Samaritan House is the most diverse human services agency in the county,” said Kelly. The success of the Samaritan House was largely due to the can-do attitude of its board, said Kelly. No matter what need arose in the county, “our board of directors said, we’ll do it,” he said. Building an organization that bettered the community was extremely rewarding for Kelly. “It was an amazing experience,” he said. “As much as this is an affluent area, there is that not-so-visible group of people who are struggling to survive.” For more information on Samaritan House visit samaritanhousesanmateo.org.
Reprinted with permission