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Donnelly changes lives behind bars

Charles Jones adjusts his cap during his graduation ceremony inside the Central Visitation Center of Lansing Correctional Facility. Jones was one of six inmates to receive his associate degree in business from Msgr. Stuart W. Swetland, president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Joe Bollig

LANSING — Whenever Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, holds a graduation ceremony there are always a lot of hugs, smiles and tears from friends, family and graduates.

The ceremony on May 18 was no different — even though the venue was a little unusual.

Six men — Isaac Beltran, Danny Clark, Ben Hinchsliff, Charles Jones, Travis Orton and  Aaron Smallwood — incarcerated in the Central Visitation Center of Lansing Correctional Facility stepped forward that day to receive their associate degree in business from Msgr. Stuart W. Swetland, president of Donnelly College.

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann chats with Aaron Smallwood before the Donnelly College graduation ceremony. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

They were dressed in white academic gowns, some with red sashes, and gold and red cords draped around their necks to signify their academic achievements. Three of them were members of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society; four were first-generation college students in their families.

Two more men might graduate later this summer if they can complete their classes.

A small crowd of visitors — mostly family and friends — witnessed the ceremony. Also attending were John Hewitt, Donnelly’s Lansing Correctional Program director; Msgr. Swetland; Ryan Reece, deputy warden; Mary Pflanz, assistant vice president of student affairs; Lisa Stoothoff, vice president of academic and student affairs/dean; and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.

A hug from Travis Orton brings a smile to his mother’s face as together they celebrate Travis graduated from the Donnelly College program at Lansing with an associate degree in business. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

“This achievement illustrates your readiness through study, faith and service to continue the transformational process made possible by the grace of God and commitment to higher education and personal formation,” Msgr. Swetland wrote in the graduation program. “You have already achieved so much. We are proud of you and celebrate with you this outstanding accomplishment.”

More than 30 men have graduated from the Donnelly College in Prison program since it began in 2001, said Hewitt. Of the 55 men that entered the Donnelly program this year, 36 are currently enrolled. Of those who dropped out, some were released from prison, some were transferred to other facilities and others were removed from the program due to addiction or discipline problems.

Some College in Prison participants can continue their education or complete their degree begun in prison at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, and the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth.

While the tattooed fingers and arms speak volumes about the life that led to this moment, the Donnelly College commencement program in which this offender’s name appears symbolizes a different kind of future only made possible by the KCK college’s Lansing prison associate degree program. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

A few students pay for their classes out of pocket, but most get assistance.

“There’s a program called Second Chance PELL that started in 2015,” said Hewitt. “If they’re full time, they’re eligible for Kansas Comprehensive Grants, and then the rest is covered through grants and scholarships from Donnelly.”

The College in Prison program couldn’t be a better illustration of the school’s mission: “We are a Catholic institution that seeks to continue the mission of Jesus Christ in our time by making the love of God tangible in our world. Specifically, the mission of Donnelly is to provide education especially to those who might otherwise not be served.”

Armed with a Donnelly degree, some of the graduates go on to start their own businesses. Some use their degree to launch their careers. Some continue their education. In general, program participants better their lives.

Aaron Smallwood prepares to flip his tassel from the right to the left to signify that he is now a graduate of Donnelly College. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

“I do see the hopelessness there [in prison], and the sadness,” said Hewitt. “The gentlemen I work with have made a decision that they want to change. Oftentimes, what happens is they come in with addiction problems. More than half haven’t finished high school. While going through addiction programs, they are sometimes required to work on a degree, and they earn points for their parole.

“They’ll finish their GED and discover something about themselves — they were able to finish a high school degree and want to go on. Not everyone is allowed to take classes. The warden decides.”

The men Hewitt works with who go on to finish their degrees have discipline, enjoy learning and want to make a difference. They are very determined and eager to learn.

“I love seeing the men thrive and make decisions that they can see that will make a difference in their whole lives in terms of employment and happiness,” he said. “It gives them a goal.”

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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