This year’s KidCAT banquet celebrated the magic and power that comes through dedicating one’s self to being of service to others.
Outside volunteers, CDCR staff, incarcerated men and returning citizens gathered in the San Quentin chapel Oct. 4 for an evening filled with food, laughter, reflection, the sharing of personal narratives—even a short skit.
“We’re not just going to tell you what it means to be of service—we’re about to show you,” said the gala’s emcee, Tommy Ross.
KidCAT Chairman Si Dang put the night in perspective by first acknowledging the original KidCAT members who started the youth offender support net- work in 2010.
“Three of those men are right here,” he said, pointing to returning citizens Gary Scott and Charlie Spence— and also SQ’s Nou Phang Thou, the last original member still incarcerated.
“Everyone deserves a second chance to pick themselves back up,” said Dang. “KidCAT’s mission focuses on always serving the most vulnerable group in society—the youth.”
Unveiling the new im- proved KidCAT logo of a global shaped light bulb, Ross asked the audience, “What comes to mind when you look at that?”
Voices from the crowd responded with phrases like “worldwide” and “bright idea.”
Vice Chairman Kenny Vernon began the presentations by talking about coming to SQ in 2014. “First Step was the first group I ever took here and to see other inmates facilitating it—I’d never seen that before anywhere,” he said. “I was surprised by the outside facilitators, too.
“I asked them, ‘How much are you getting paid for this?’ I couldn’t believe it when they said they were all volunteers.”
Vernon explained how profound it was for him to hear them say that they got something out of volunteering—something far beyond monetary compensation.
“Later that night, I thought about the things they said about finding purpose, find- ing healing, becoming more empathetic,” said Vernon. “Me, I only did community service twice in my life before prison, and that was be- cause the court ordered me to.
“I asked myself, ‘Is this something I could do?’”
Vernon then described how, for the first time, he made a small donation to a KidCAT fundraiser from his inmate trust account.
“Being recognized just for donating—it filled me with genuine pride. I’d done something that made a difference,” he said. “After that, I was hooked.
“I stand before you today as living proof. Being of ser- vice changed me from a per- son I didn’t like into a man with a head full of kindness and a heart full of love.”
Will VanBrackle recently became a KidCAT volunteer facilitator, and he shared his own personal journey. A professional chef, he encouraged the guests to appreciate each other while they ate.
Quoting the late Anthony Bourdain, VanBrackle said, “ ‘You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.’ I hope during our meal tonight you have a chance to learn, grow and love.”
As KidCAT servers made last minute preparations, Ross wanted the audience to acknowledge Phang Thou, “a man who has truly dedicated himself to living a life of ser- vice.”
True to form, Thou was busy working behind the scenes—sporting a plastic apron in the back of the chapel as he arranged plates of food.
“Being recognized just for donating—it filled me with genuine pride. I’d done something that made a difference”
The SQ Jazz ensemble played from the choir box while everyone dug into an institutional meal of quarter chicken pieces, battered fish, vegetables, tortillas, rice and beans. A legitimate and palpable family vibe filled the chapel.
Peter Nguyen recently be- came a member of KidCAT after being at San Quentin for a year. “There were some folks here who are just start- ing to come into the prison to volunteer,” he observed. “It was really awesome to watch them open up, relax and be- come more engaged.
“By the end of the night, they just looked fully comfortable and at home.”
The biggest round of applause greeted Ayoola Mitchell, a fixture at SQ. Mitchell regularly volunteers twice a week at the prison when she’s not out traveling the nation to advocate for juvenile justice reform.
“We love you, Ayoola,” was heard numerous times as she approached the stage to speak.
“Make sure to tell my kids about all this,” she said to Scott, who now works with her after paroling six years ago. “They always say I’m the meanest person in the whole world.”
Mitchell wanted to share her thoughts and experiences about how everyone’s lives are linked together. She described her time as a counselor at the Santa Clara juvenile hall in 1995—and how shocking it was when so many minors came back from their court date with a life sentence.
One juvenile lifer who stood out in her memory then was Vinnie Nguyen, who would go on to become an original founding member of KidCAT and has since paroled. Mitchell noted how one of Nguyen’s best friends at SQ was Scott—her own friend and advocacy coworker.
Peter Nguyen spoke after Mitchell and commented on what a tough act she was to follow.
“What motivates a person to serve can be as different as a fingerprint,” he said. “When I was young, being of service was a nonexistent concept for me.
“Prison forced me to deep dive and reflect on the positive values my family, especially my mother, had tried to instill in me.
“KidCAT gave me the chance to finally return to be- ing the person that my family raised me to be.”
In between speakers, Ross shared his own insights about KidCAT. “I’m one of the elder members—an old guy, and when I first got involved, I really didn’t expect to learn anything from men younger than me,” he said. “I’ve never been so wrong. These young guys continue to teach me new stuff about life every day.”
KidCAT members then performed “The Awakened Spirit of Service,” an original skit written by Dang and K. Tran. Through drama and humor, the performance illustrated a young man’s emotional path toward learn- ing to serve his community.
After the applause died down, Ross introduced Gayle and Phil Towle, who have served KidCAT for years as mentors and personal counselors.
“Not only do they offer us their heartfelt guidance and love every week, but they also show us the model of a perfect marriage,” Ross said about the couple who have been married 55 years. “Because of them, I know what a healthy relation- ship looks like.”
The Towles traded lines from their joint speech. “When I volunteered at SQ, I had this arrogant notion that we were serving criminals who needed our superior wisdom and life experience to re- cover from their tragic lives,” said Phil. “How naïve and embarrassing that looks today.”
Gayle said, “Years later, as all volunteers will attest—we come to prison to have you men in blue teach us about be- ing better human beings.”
Phil asked the prisoners in the chapel, “Are you marking time until you get out of pris- on to live?”
“Or living now, as the best person you can be?” asked Gayle. “While you did not choose to live here—you can choose how you live here.”
Gary Scott came onstage while Ross said, “Give it up for the prodigal son. He has returned. This is what six years of freedom looks like.”
“Coming in here and seeing guys that I know from when I was incarcerated, looking at KidCAT members, facilitators, and guests at the 2019 KidCAT Banquet on October 4, 2019 ago I never would have envisioned this being so power- ful,” said Scott.
Lastly, Ross introduced keynote speaker Spence by referring to a well-known SQ video that depicted Spence breaking down in tears of vulnerability.
“Yeah, yeah—everyone knows I’m an ugly crier,” said Spence as the crowd welcomed him. “I tried writing a couple of different speeches for tonight, but in the end I just had to tear them up.
“The only way to address you guys is to just speak from my heart.”
Spence paroled last year after serving 22 years in prison since the age of 16. He spoke mostly about the difficulties he has faced in transitioning out.
“As great as freedom is, I want you guys to know that stepping in here today—it’s the first time I’ve felt normal since I left,” he explained. “It’s really hard for me to connect with people on the outside.
“They haven’t done the kind of work on themselves that we all have. I often question my socialization out there. I go check in at the parole office, and there I feel comfortable.”
He told a story about recently hiking on nearby Mt. Tam, and how looking at SQ from up on the hill caused him to sit down and start crying.
“I broke down because I know so many of you that de- served to be standing there beside me,” he said. “When I look around this room, I’m incredibly proud of all the amazing work you guys continue to do.
“My own freedom came when I learned to be of genuine service and serve others with- out caring about the recognition. Trust me, that’s the real key to your freedom.”