Returning Balance To My Life

Mark Kutolowski ‘99
Rogers House

The community that rasied me and gave me life also enriched me with an experience of the redeeming power of love.

Trembling with nervous excitement, I struggled to appear calm as I approached Rogers House, a residential recovery house for former prisoners. As a middle class suburban college student, how would I relate to the Rogers House residents? Would I be accepted, or pushed away as one who could not possibly understand the pain and suffering they have experienced all of their lives? Already committed to working nearly 400 hours with this program, these questions weighed heavily on my mind. As I stepped onto the weathered porch and knocked on the door, another question came to me. What have I gotten myself into?

My experience began months before I actually came to Rogers House. Having received an abundance of care and support throughout my freshman year, by the Spring I felt somewhat unbalanced. I had benefited immensely from the services and resources of Dartmouth, but given little in return. A DPCS internship provided an opportunity to return that balance to my life. Searching through the files at Tucker Foundation, I stumbled across Corpus Christi’s Rogers House, a Catholic ministry to prisoners and ex-offenders. Operating out of my hometown in Rochester, NY, the Rogers House internship struck me as ideal. In the summer that followed, the community that raised me and gave me life also enriched me with an experience of the redeeming power of love. Little did I know that, when I knocked on the door to Rogers House, the door would open to the opportunity of a lifetime.

Rogers House exists as a branch of Corpus Christi ministries. Corpus, a church several thousand strong in downtown Rochester, is renowned across the city for its extensive social work, both within the diocese and in national and international affairs. The spirit of love and acceptance in the church is the basis for all seven of their outreach ministries.

The Rogers House program is immensely successful, with 80% of its graduates never returning to prison, compared with a New York State average of 35%. In my opinion, the reason for this success is the great intimacy of the program. Rogers House is not an impersonal process; it is a community. Rather than instruct, staff members attempt to identify with the ex-offenders and share with them similar struggles in their lives. At the beginning of my internship, I struggled with opening my life to the members of the house. Sharing my life with them put me way out of my comfort zone.

Gradually I learned to open up and share my life with the residents of Rogers House. As I did, a beautiful thing happened. Beneath all the different circumstances, I realized my problems and struggles were the same as theirs. The paths of our lives were different, but we were both walking with the same emotions, hurts and dreams.

Identifying with the residents of the house was both exciting and somewhat scary. On the one hand, the experience strengthened my personal belief that all people contain a divine presence within. However, I found our similarities somewhat frightening. If my struggles and weaknesses are of the same roots as theirs, what makes me different? Could I some day end up in prison when these character flaws are left unchecked? Is the only reason we’re in different places because I grew up in a better environment, and not because of any personal moral integrity? These thoughts troubled me. I wanted to become closer to the residents, but this was closer than I had ever imagined. This experience both uplifted and humbled me.

In a recent speech, 1996 Presidential candidate Bob Dole vowed to “get tough on crime by going after the root cause: violent criminals.” Shortly after that speech, I noticed a newspaper article about Dole’s visit to an Arizona tent city prison. The prisoners worked on chain gangs, and were not allowed hot meals. Dole praised the prison as a way to teach criminals a lesson. Unfortunately, the lesson the camp teaches is no different than the lesson most prisoners have heard all their lives: that they are less than human.

And so the cycle of violence continues. Is there a way to end the cycle? My experience this summer tells me there is. We can break the cycle, but not with punishment or discipline. What the hurting ex-offenders we worked with needed was love.

At the end of July, Rogers House had a birthday party for Thomas, a 42 year old resident. After receiving hugs and congratulations from the other residents, staff and volunteers, Thomas looked at his cake and broke into tears of joy. It was the first time in his life he had celebrated a birthday.