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The heart of corrections: Helping those in need

"Make-A-Smile" is a group of corrections professionals who are going above and beyond to assist communities

One need not look very far to read or hear a news story about a public official, police, or correction officer violating the public trust and damaging the image of public servants.

It seems the only time corrections attracts a headline is when an inmate escapes, our overtime is high or a corrections officer is arrested. All that we do to serve and protect the community usually occurs “behind the wall” and generates little public interest or recognition.

It often seems like the important work we perform is minimized and taken for granted by the public we serve.

Well, this month’s “A Warden’s View” will focus on a group of corrections professionals who are going above and beyond to assist communities in need.

The group is called “Make-A-Smile” and their story begins in January 2007, approximately a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf coast of Mississippi and Alabama.

A group of wardens, members of the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents (NAAWS), was meeting at the American Correctional Association’s Congress of Corrections in Tampa, Florida.

Like many others, the wardens were searching for a way to make a meaningful contribution to the Katrina recovery effort. The group wanted to do something to aid corrections families that were impacted by the storm in a manner that would also benefit the communities in which these families resided.

An idea took hold that the wardens would go into these communities ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and provide a playground and other related equipment to resurrect or create a park in neighborhoods struggling to return to sense of normality.

The hope was that these parks would provide the children in these neighborhoods a safe place to play and become a beacon of hope for the neighborhood’s revival. After some discussion, a decision was made to name this effort “Make-A-Smile.”

Putting ideas into action
This group of wardens, from all over the United States, left the conference, returned to their respective agencies, and began to spread the word about Make-A-Smile and organize fundraising events.

The corrections community embraced this project and the dollars began to pour in. In fact, the financial support was so extensive that the project was able to plan the rehabilitation of three parks: one in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, one in Bugalusa, Louisiana, and the last in Moss Point, Mississippi.

Corrections staff from around the country traveled, at their own expense, to Louisiana and Mississippi in May 2008. Corrections officers, wardens, teachers and other staff worked side by side erecting playground equipment, building picnic shelters, repairing fences and, in one instance, rescuing a Little League baseball field.

The impacted communities rallied around the corrections staff and together exceeded everyone’s expectations. The group left knowing they had made a real impact on the lives of the people they met in Louisiana and Mississippi.

This group of wardens met again at the ACA Congress of Corrections in the summer of 2008, just three months after the success of the Make-A-Smile project.

This same group of individuals, lead by Mel Williams, a warden in New York and then-President of NAAWS, recognized the value in finding another project for the Make-A-Smile group. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of communities that are devastated each year by natural disasters.

A decision was made to take time to reorganize and find another neighborhood to assist. In June 2008, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, had experienced one of the worst floods in our nation’s history. As a result, Cedar Rapids was selected for the second Make-A-Smile effort. 

Utilizing the same format, the Make-a-Smile group raised money, traveled to Iowa, and spent a week building a playground, gazebo, and bandstand.

The park also received a complete basketball court “make-over”, new baseball dugouts, park benches and a great deal of landscaping that included some tree plantings. Again, the support of the local community was outstanding and the positive impact immediately evident. Before the group left Cedar Rapids, the park was already receiving a “workout” from the neighborhood children.

On-going success
When the Make-A-Smile group met following the success in Iowa, a decision needed to be made – was Make-A-Smile to continue or was it time to retire the cause? After much discussion, the leadership elected to sustain the effort and formalize Make-A-Smile as a charitable organization.

The group decided it would select a community for assistance and commence a park rehabilitation project/playground build every two years. In September 2011, Make-A-Smile became a registered non-profit corporation and is currently in the process of obtaining charitable organization recognition by the IRS. 

In May of this year, Make-A-Smile completed its third project, in Nashville, another community victimized by a terribly devastating flood. A new park was established in Nashville on the site where homes, lost in the flood, actually once stood.

The park was named “England Park” in memory of an elderly couple, Andrew and Martha England, who lost their lives in the May, 2010 flood. Once again, representatives of the corrections profession went to the aid of a community in need.

These projects serve as catalysts for local government action and often shift attention from the necessary, but tedious, task of home rebuilding to community rebuilding.

The recent project in Nashville garnered a great deal of press attention and did much to cast corrections in an extremely positive light. While Make-A Smile is only one of many positive projects supported by corrections professionals, the organization serves as an example of the overwhelming spirit of service and charity that exists in our profession – the true “heart” of corrections.

Author’s Note:  I am proud to be a founding member of Make-A-Smile. If you would like the opportunity to become involved in our charitable work or simply learn more about the organization, please feel free to email me at: cealbino55@gmail.com or visit Make-A-Smile’s website for more information.

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