I am a volunteer with the Massachusetts Department of Corrections. Every week, I go inside prison walls to facilitate a fellowship under the auspices of the programs office and the Protestant chaplain. I have been doing this for about a decade. Recently, as an extension of this fellowship, I had an opportunity to participate in the distribution of Christmas gifts to the men incarcerated at the facility where I volunteer.
In this case, “gifts” is defined as a bag containing sundries such as a few sheets of writing paper, a pair of socks, deodorant, toothpaste, and other items for personal hygiene and grooming. Lavish stuff.
The distribution process is methodical. After going through a security screening, the volunteers are escorted through the yard and to the cafeteria where we are given our ground rules and take positions behind tables piled with gift bags. Then, nearly 1,500 men of every physical description, young and old, are released from their cell blocks to move through the line. Each is allowed to take a single bag with him and return to his cell.
Some of the men have no interest in anything other than getting what they can. Their interactions with the volunteers are curt and transactional. These interactions are also atypical of the experience. Most of the men seem grateful. They smile, shake hands, return greetings, and say “Thank you.”
There is something uplifting about receiving an expression of gratitude from someone who may not have many reasons to be thankful. That man may feel forgotten by family and abandoned by friends; he may have only the company of fellow inmates and DOC staff to look forward to each day. Yet he manages to muster a smile and speak a kind word to a stranger. I take no personal credit for what transpires in that moment, but it makes the experience all the more worthwhile.
Yes, for every man whose hand I shake, there is a victim, a story about some measure of undeserved loss. Some of those hands are responsible for unspeakable deeds, and in some cases the eyes into which I look contain no remorse. But I also know that there are many men who will spend many years — maybe all of their years — with a sense of gnawing regret, and that, for those men, knowing that there is someone who is willing to clasp hands without judgment makes all the difference.
As I stood in place and the procession of men moved by, I shook a thousand hands or more that day. While I did this, the old sales networking rule came to mind: For every 100 people you meet, ten will become prospects and one a customer. By that calculus, maybe ten of the men who came for a gift bag left with something more.
At least, I hope that’s the case.
As we enter into the new year, let’s all endeavor to get out and shake more hands with the intent of doing something for the other guy. Whether you are hustling to find new customers, looking for a new opportunity, or simply want to expand your personal network, the more hands you shake with an attitude of giving, the better your chance will be of making a meaningful connection.
Who knows — maybe the life that changes will be your own.