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No Degree of Separation

August 17, 2016

I will start off by breaking an unwritten rule. At least I don’t believe it is written anywhere. I am going to give the moral of the story up front. Why not? There are a few in this story and I do not want you to miss them. The first one is : Be mindful of how you treat others, you never know what that person may end up doing in life. The second one is as long as you are still alive you have a chance and you will fulfill your purpose. The last one is you have to discover how to listen to the still small voice.

So let me start with a little background before I get to the nitty gritty. I am from Western NY, A city called Buffalo. I was an employee of the NYS Dept. of Corrections, for 33 years. I recently retired in January of this year 2016. I wore several hats while I was with the department. I began my career as an corrections officer. My last position was a Deputy Superintendent for Programs. I had two other positions in between those two. I was only an officer for two and a half years. For 30 years of my career I was a civilian. I switched over to the rehabilitation side of corrections. The year was 1985, and one of my positions was an ombudsman position titled Inmate Grievance Supervisor. This program was the first stage for an inmate to file a complaint about facility conditions. An inmate was highly encouraged to go through this process before he or she could file a law suit. I had an office, records were kept and I had office staff. However the office staff were inmates.

There was an inmate I will call him “T” who was one of my staff. He was a very intelligent individual and I could not understand how someone as bright and talented as he was would keep coming back to jail. At that time I did not understand addiction, or emotional baggage. As a civilian we are able to have more conversations with inmates as long as we did not cross the line and remained professional. Therefore you got to know them on a more human level. He was intelligent enough to never attempt to cross the line. He was a singer and he had written a musical play. He showed it to me and asked me to read it. I did and I was very impressed with his work. As time went on he was released; interestingly, he always made Parole. In the meantime I transfer to another facility. I am my new facility about a year, and had this encounter. I am walking down the hallway one day and someone yells out to me “Ms. Watkins get me a job!” I turn around to see who would be that bold to call me out and it is “T” I respond “What are you doing following me?” Needless to say I looked out for him. If an inmate was respectful I always treated them with dignity and I tried to be an encourager when I could. He gets released again and I never see him again after that.

Fast forward 30 years, I am newly retired and wondering if I made the right decision. I am not a television watcher, I view very little and usually it is a news show, or documentary something of that sort. Sometimes when I am tired of writing or reading which is how I spend most of my time, I will sit and channel surf. The news show CBS 60 minutes caught my eye one evening. One of the stories was about a play in NYC that was a musical and it was about the human spirit. They walked you through the process that the producer used and her auditions. She explained her concept and how the play unfolded. They focused on some of the actor/singers in the play. It was quite captivating. They showed a person walking to the audition and the person was “T”. I recognized him right away even though it has been 30 years since I saw him. After I picked myself off of the floor, I said to the Lord, “Okay why did you have me see this there is a reason.” You see I do not believe in coincidence. I know it is a cliche, but I know without a shadow of a doubt that everything happens for a reason.

The still small voice told me to call a friend of mine who was also in corrections. She and I never worked together in the same facility. We met each other through networking events and statewide trainings. We became good friends and both being single like to travel. I asked her if she had ever had “T” in any of her programs. She was an Alcohol and Substance abuse Counselor, so the possiblity was high, that she might have know him, because he had been around to a few facilities. She said she thought she remembered him. I told her if she could find, the CBS 60 minutes segment, to watch it and see if she ever had him in her groups. She found it, watched it, called me back and said “ I remember him he was in my goups. We have to go to NYC to see the play.” We planned a trip.

So in April of this year 2016, we find tickets on-line. We go to NYC, to see the play, Joanne drove us down, from Buffalo. That’s when the magic really started happening. I tried to contact “T” through Facebook but did not receive a response. However my gut told me we would meet again. We find the theater where the play was at; it was in the heart of Harlem. That was a treat in itself, in that I love the culture of Harlem. It was on an one-way street. Finding a place to park in Harlem is like trying to find gold in the Alaskan mountains. We circled the block a few times. During our last circle we see “T’ getting out of a car. I yell out the window “T!!!!!” He looks in the car he waves and smiles but we could tell he did not recognize us. He proceeded to walk to the car. Just as I was getting ready to tell him who we were. A very impatient driver pulls up behind us and lays on his horn. He would not give up so we pull off. I am distraught. It was like a cruel joke.

We find a place to park about three or four blocks away. We walk back to the theatre. We go inside of an old school building turned theatre. It was nostalgic and so NYC. As you enter the building the theater is to the right doors closed and you hear them reherasing. “Ugghhh” I say to myself we won’t get a chance to talk to him. I am upset, but staying positive. To the left is a long hallway, which led to the box office, which was probably the principals office when it was a school that is what it reminded you of. There was a vending machine. At the end of the Hallway around the corner and down another long hall way was the restrooms. I used the restroom, came back to the first hallway and sat down in some chairs that were against the wall. More people start to come into the theatre. A very friendly woman came out of the rehearsal, and after observing that she was approachable. I made my appeal. “Ma’m could you do me a favor.” Her response “Well it depends on what it is.” I say “Could you Tell “T” That some people that he worked with 30 years ago are here all the way from Western NY and would like to speak to him.” Surprisingly she was very pleasant, and agreed to deliver the message. We sat there for a while and my friend became impatient got up and went to the bathroom; I stayed put. A few minutes later “T’ comes out.

He walks over to me along with his wife, who is also in the play, and with a puzzled look on his face, he says “Are you the lady looking for me.” I said “Yes in 1985 I was the Inmate ………” interruption. “OH MY GOD” was his response. “Ms. Watkins, I can’t believe it.” He tells his wife “This woman looked out for me when I was incarcerated.” We hugged I told him Ms. Marion was also here she went to the restroom. We went to meet her. She is now walking up the hallway. He screams. OH MY GOD Ms. Marion. More hugs, tears, pictures. We talked briefly before he had to go to his dressing room. His last words before he went to the dressing room was “I wrote a book, I will be selling them on the side of the theater after the play come to my table.”

That sounded like a happy ending didn’t it, well the best part has not been told yet, there is more. The play was absolutely astounding, we laughed, we cried, we sang it was wonderful. One of those shows where you leave feeling uplifted and full of hope. We met most of the cast, took pictures gave accolades, it was great. We meet “T” at his table and being an author of a book myself. I purchased his book just to support his cause. We talked some more and then Joanne and I revealed that we were going to a restaurant to get something to eat. We said goodbye and started walking back to our car. We didn’t get far before Joanne’s cell phone rang it was “T” informing us that he would meet us at the restaurant. He and his wife met us. We broke bread and had a wonderful conversation. I told him about my book. He purchased mine. We say our goodbyes this time for real. Joanne and I go back to our hotel. The next day as we are driving home. I am flipping through “T”’s book, to my surprise he tells the story of our encounters when he was incarcerated I am mentioned in his book by name. It gets better Joanne is mentioned in the book also. You can only imagine our shock when we saw our names in his book. The even more shocking part is that she and I never worked together. I had not seen “T” in thirty years, but evidently I made enough of an impact in his life that he mentions me in is book.

So going back to the moral of the story that I told you in the beginning. Be mindful of how you treat people, no matter what state they may be in. Plant a seed of encouragement. Someone else may come along and water it. I was fortunate enough, no blessed enough to see the flower bloom from my seed. It took “T” forty years to get healed from his addiction. He told us the void he was trying to fill from childhood pain. However as long as you are still on this earth you have a chance and you will fulfill your purpose. And finally I have learned to listen to the still small voice telling me to watch this, call that person. I call that voice Jesus. You may call him someone else. But you won’t hear him if you never sit quiet enough to hear. I don’t have any more doubts about retirement any more. This is the second half of my journey. The beginning has started off wonderfully, I cannot wait to see what else will unfold. Deborah Watkins, Author “From Mediocre to Marvelous live a fulfilled life.”

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