ORLANDO | The average adult makes more than 200 decisions per day: when to sleep, eat, pray and more. Those who are incarcerated make less than 30.
This has a profound impact for troubled youths in prime developmental stages of maturity and it’s something Kairos Torch, part of Kairos Prison Ministry International Inc., hopes to shed light on.
“(For youths in jail) the opportunity to make choices is taken away from them and once they learn that they have no personal choices, except to obey or disobey, at this critical stage, it damages their growth process and they become institutionalized,” explained Kevin Resnover, Florida’s Kairos Torch youth ministry coordinator. “The longer they are incarcerated during this time, the more difficult it is for them when they get out. One of the most significant parts of the program is that we teach the importance of making healthy choices and how that can be achieved.”
Kairos Torch volunteers come from all faith backgrounds and minister to youths 25 and under through an initial three-day retreat followed by six months of one-on-one mentoring. The younger the offender, the more critical the experience.
Virginia Lopez of St. Andrew Parish in Orlando is a mentor at the Orange Youth Academy, a center with 54 young men and teens. Her most memorable adolescent was a 13-year-old boy. “At first he was shy and quiet,” remembered Lopez. After testimonies from his mentors, he became wide open. “He actually said he’d been physically, mentally and spiritually abused by his parents,” Lopez said tearfully. “The bottom line was he’d rather be there, at the academy, than go home again.”
This is where the mission kicks in — showing inmates the love of God. “What makes us different is that we come back,” said Gay Taft, a member of the Episcopal Church who has worked with the program for nearly a decade. She explained that the trust developed in the mentoring process builds bonds of love and mimics God’s love for us.
Taft added one of the main differences with Kairos Torch is men and women serve as guides after the retreat to strengthen the family environment. The idea is based on the original model suggested by a federal prison chaplain seeking to give inmates a “positive family experience,” ultimately giving birth to Kairos Torch in 1997.
“I remember the day I walked through a door and there were 10-15 people with big smiles on their face and clapping for me as if I had done something right,” said one inmate. “It was a feeling of love that I was unfamiliar with for a long time. I felt a change within myself and knew there are people in this world who care about me and love me. … Having a mentor, someone I grew close to, to be there for me and help me through my hard times, was something I just could not say thank you (for) enough.”
“Many of the mentees have never met their own fathers and are already parents themselves,” Taft said. Modeling a familial setting helps them envision the ideal for themselves, and mentoring gives them the tools to carry it out. One of those tools is an exercise known as “father forgiveness.” Through prayer and reflection, participants are invited to forgive their fathers’ failures. They also learn to forgive themselves.
This is another reason why mentoring “is the most important element” in the process said Brian Seeber, an Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner who heads the program at the Daytona Beach Juvenile Residential Facility. The goal is to encourage offenders to see their God-given potential. It is an effort that takes time, God’s time, the definition of kairos.
Seeber and his wife, Lynne, have trained volunteers like Don Hartnett since 2013. Hartnett is a retired police officer who has seen the benefits firsthand. “Once they’re in the system, most write themselves off,” said Hartnett. “They know that next time, it’s the end of the line. Kairos Torch gives them hope.”
“What I really like about this ministry is that it is ecumenical in nature … and permits Christians to work together the way Christ intended,” Seeber added. “Having Christians coming to Our Lady of Lourdes for the extensive training we do (six sessions totaling about 40 hours) is such a wonderful thing. … Working together for a common goal shows all of us that we have more in common than that which divides us.”
As cities work to reduce youth incarcerations, several have asked Kairos Torch to modify the program for use beyond prison walls. The project is in the works and although mentors are not allowed to maintain relationships with mentees, they do continue to pray. ”Not knowing what happened after they left is hard, but I put them in God’s hands every night,” shared Lopez.
And it’s those prayers and support that continue to make breakthroughs and inspire thank-you notes like this one: “You have truly helped me accept who I am and that what I am going through is all part of the grander plan that God is making for my life, and that God does bless the broken road.” n
For more information about Kairos Torch volunteer opportunities in Daytona Beach, contact Brian Seeber at firstname.lastname@example.org. In Orlando, contact Virginia Lopez at email@example.com.