Cleveland insider: meet three stalwart volunteers

There’s no single reason why some people repeatedly volunteer their time and talents to agencies and programs.

Some were simply raised that way, while others cite faith and a higher power demanding that they give back. It takes a special kind of empathy, patience and desire for change in order to volunteer just once, let alone for multiple years.

Fresh Water contributor Brandon Baker has sat down with three locals who have done just that, lending wisdom, insight, manpower and more to Cleveland agencies that aim to impact lives. These are the people who make good happen - again and again and again.

<span class="content-image-text">Bruce Smith</span>Bruce SmithFrom Lawyer to Educator

Bruce Smith immediately chuckles when asked for a success story from his years of volunteering as an adult educator.

That’s because a surprise run-in earlier this year pleasantly illustrated the impact he's made by giving a few hours of his time each week at the May Dugan Center’s Education Resources Center (ERC) since the effort launched in 2010.

Shortly after the ERC's inception, one of Smith's first students went on to pass the GED test and attend barber college. Snap to spring, 2016, when Smith’s normal barber took some time off for health reasons, he went to a different shop in Lakewood. The barber who ended up cutting his hair was José - the young man he had previously tutored some six years ago.

“We had such a good time talking,” Smith says. “I was surprised to see him, and he was surprised to see me. It was just a wonderful reunion to see the fulfillment of his goals and his dreams.”

Smith retired in 2009 after 42 years as an attorney. He had done some nonprofit volunteering during those years, but as his availability increased, so did his propensity to share that free time with organizations and individuals in need.

He began volunteering for Lakewood City School District’s GED program, but became intrigued when a similar program launched at the May Dugan Center a year later. He is now one of four volunteer teachers working in May Dugan’s ERC to offer adult instruction to the near West Side multi-service center’s clients.

“In many ways, it was more fun than practicing law,” he recalls. “I didn’t have to track my time, I didn’t have to bill for it, and I didn’t have to try and collect for it. I just did the tutoring. "

The ERC’s instruction is individualized for each person. That means volunteers such as Smith pivot from algebra to science to reading on any given day. He most enjoys the interaction with the ERC’s diverse client base, which includes immigrants who want to learn English, people seeking to earn a GED and more.

Smith finds inspiration in the classroom because he’s teaching people who continue to work toward educational goals despite experiencing various pitfalls. Perhaps not surprisingly, the experience has turned into much more than a volunteering gig.

“It’s very rewarding, and it’s fun to get to know them,” he says. “Every day I look forward to it. It’s wonderful and very rewarding.”

Further reading: Artist Rehabilitation Coalition leverages the Bard to inspire inmates

<span class="content-image-text">Gracie Riggins</span>Gracie RigginsA Calling and a Change of Heart

Even with training and some previous experience, Gracie Riggins was still afraid the first time she met with a prisoner as part of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries' Community Re-Entry Friend to Friend program.

She was overdressed, overanxious and had no idea what to expect upon entering the Northeast Pre-Release Center on East 30th Street adjacent to Orange Avenue. However, one simple thought has kept Riggins focused on being a visiting volunteer friend - or match up - instead of any preconceived notions she may have had.

“I looked at them as simply people that need to be loved also,” says Riggins, who is now in her fifth year of volunteering with the program. “If you just have a conversation with them, it will be OK.”

Now a credentialed minister, Riggins has had five match ups in those five years. Most of those prisoners embraced her and provided as much encouragement to her as she did for them. Ten years ago, she did not envision these sorts of relationships.

Back then, two friends would constantly offer to pick Riggins up and bring her along for a prison ministry program through the church she attended. Although she had little interest, Riggins tagged along reluctantly just the same. She remained quiet during the sessions, eventually deciding to stop going all together.

Then she had a change of heart.

“I think it was just something He wanted me to do,” she says, adding that God was “on me” to go back and get involved in prison ministry. “I had to walk this out and see if this was a calling.”

Upon re-engaging in prison ministry programs for several years at halfway houses and other facilities through Prison Fellowship, Riggins realized she was destined to listen to and befriend inmates. She first learned about Friend to Friend by attending a service at the Pre-Release Center.

Memories of her previous reluctance ultimately made her want to get involved in the program. She recalled how little the prisoners were permitted to speak during ministry – and she knew they had much to say.

“That was always my observation,” says Riggins. “At the end - the last five minutes of the service - they would let the ladies come up and talk to us. So that was always in my spirit to hear them and listen.”

When she finally got into Friend to Friend’s one-on-one sessions, Riggins felt like she was the one receiving a blessing. The visits helped her open up and share things with her five matched companions that she wouldn’t have told anybody else.  

One prisoner in particular developed a keen sense for knowing when Riggins wasn’t feeling well or something was weighing on her mind.

“To go in and encourage somebody in a dark place and for them to encourage you, it lights up your spirit,” she says.

That comfort also played a role in Riggins landing her current position as a resident supervisor at an area halfway house.

Prison ministry isn’t the easiest form of volunteering, to be sure. Riggins has thought about giving it up at times, but the notion never gains much traction.

“I [have been] tired and frustrated, but every time, [God] will put somebody there to let me know that I need to continue on this path.”

Further reading: Inmates and CWRU students become colleagues in unique course

<span class="content-image-text">Broderick Johnson</span>Broderick Johnson"It really opened my eyes"

By 2013, Broderick Johnson had volunteered and worked for most of the populations he thought needed his support. He had worked in hospitals, delivered food to the hungry, worked with orphans and also took a job as an employment specialist with the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

He felt that volunteering with the incarcerated population was missing from his faith-based mission to give back. A retired minister at his church connected him with Friend to Friend, and less than three years later, Johnson found himself visiting a Grafton Correctional Facility prisoner convicted of murder in the 25th year of a 25-to-life term.

Their discussions vary from sports and politics to daily life behind bars. Johnson and the prisoner have also discussed interviewing in front of the parole board, which has encouraged the prisoner to enroll in classes that expound on that topic.

“My concern is for them to have a good outcome, or at least the best outcome that they could have under the circumstances,” says Johnson of his matches.

Prior to his involvement with Friend to Friend, Johnson didn’t realized that having visitors better a prisoner’s chances at parole. The more credible visitors an inmate receives, the better it reflects on them, he says.

“It really opened my eyes to the reality that he lives with,” Johnson says.

His current match seems just as eager to know about Johnson’s job and the challenges he faces. When Johnson couldn’t mask his exhaustion from work, family and church during a recent visit, the match made it clear that he could go without a Friend to Friend visit for once.

“He said, 'Man, you look tired. Why don’t you just go on home?'” Johnson recalls with a laugh. “He said, ‘I appreciate everything you do for me, but I want you to realize something, bro — I’m still gonna be here [if you come back another time]! So go home and get some rest.’”

Johnson continued, “I thought I would be helping somebody out by doing it,” he says, “but after a while, the tables turned and they showed concern for me and my situation.”

This story is one of a Fresh Water series supported in part by the May Dugan Center.

Brandon Baker
Brandon Baker

About the Author: Brandon Baker

Brandon Baker is a freelance journalist who has contributed articles to Freshwater Cleveland since 2014. His work has been featured by Scene, The News-Herald, Patch, EcoWatch and more. By day, he is a full-time research consultant with Burges & Burges Strategists, where he provides communications, messaging, strategic and research support for various public, private, and nonprofit entities in Ohio. In the fall, he enjoys working for the Cleveland Browns Scoreboard Operations team at FirstEnergy Stadium. Brandon is a graduate of The Ohio State University and enjoys traveling, exercising, the arts, volunteering, and spending time with family.