DORSET — Children inherently understand the problems of making a transition: moving to a new school, moving to a new town, moving from elementary to middle school.
Two years ago, when Dorset Middle School social studies and history teacher Nate Merrill asked sixth-grade students about participating in a program at Rutland’s Dismas House to help former prisoners make the adjustment back to civilian life, they eagerly stepped forward to help out.
They prepared special meals and proudly shared them with the men. In recognition of their contribution, the young volunteers were honored with the Dismas House “Loving Spoonful Award” in a virtual ceremony on Friday, May 7th.
“The middle school students do so much to help the transition back into the community,” said Geraldine Burke, Rutland Dismas House assistant director. “First, they bring youthful joy and enthusiasm to the table. A sense of normalcy. Just as important, as part of rehabilitation the former prisoners need to be reacquainted with children. Remember, many of them have their own youngsters they haven’t seen in years.”
The Dismas House in Rutland opened in 1990 as part of a national prisoner rehabilitation strategy.
Named for the repentant thief who was crucified on the cross next to Jesus, Dismas House represents forgiveness and reconciliation. Participants in the program, including local college student volunteers, share a living space with residents.
The idea is to ease the transition of the former prisoners into a functioning role in society.
Together the wide-ranging group resides in a house for a few months, sharing life as a normal family unit: carrying out chores, heading off to work each morning, watching the tube as a group, and discussing current events.
The centerpiece of the program is sitting down together as a household community for a meal at the end of the day.
That evening dinner hour created the opportunity for The Dorset School student volunteers.
Merrill already had students participating in a cooking class as an extracurricular activity when they heard about the Dismas program. Using their newfound culinary skills, the students would prepare a meal and then take food to Rutland where they would sit down with all of the residents for conversations over dinner.
Sixteen Dorset students participated in the program.
Over the course of three months, they prepared ten meals that were then shared with the residents of Dismas House. “Lasagna was a big hit and each menu featured chocolate chip cookies,” Merrill said. “The project was a hands-on lesson for the students in the value and satisfaction that comes with community service. Everyone’s face lit up when the kids walked into the house.”
While the pandemic delayed the award ceremony, the students haven’t forgotten the experience of their work with the Dismas House.
“It was fun times learning to cook with my friends, eating food together, and then meeting new people,” one student said. “It feels good when you help out others in need.”