On June 4, 2008, ten men graduated from the Friend of A Friend mentoring project at the Maryland Correctional Training Center (MCTC) in Hagerstown. The project is sponsored by the Middle Atlantic Region’s Maryland Peace with Justice Program. For six months, mentors train their mentees in conflict resolution and ways to avoid violence, crucial skills in their environment. Both mentors and mentees are prisoners at MCTC. The men meet in three-hour sessions on Wednesday nights while mentees also meet regularly with mentors individually. MAR staff, volunteers and a reporter came together to celebrate success – the mentors’ success in helping a new group to gain valuable life skills and the mentees’ success in completing the project. The ceremony included speeches, skits and a poetic reading.

The skits and poetic reading helped highlight not only the men’s abilities as public speakers and artists, but also the hardships that they have faced and anticipate facing. The first skit depicted a man who had recently been released from prison – only to be besieged by fear, tears, and temptation. He chooses to listen to a positive voice of reason and to stand up for himself and for his life.

Glenn Waller, a mentor, spoke about the performance, which highlighted some of the fundamental reasons for the Friend of A Friend project. The skit showed the need to learn conflict resolution skills, how to listen to the positive instead of the negative, and the need to believe in oneself even when others do not.

The Friend of a Friend project’s primary goal is to help participants find useful alternatives to violence and promote the use of conflict resolution with the prison population, thus reducing the number of violent incidents among participants while increasing their capacity to become positive role models. Staff and group members discuss and practice reacting to potentially frustrating situations with a focus on coping, communicating, and meditation.

The sessions encourage participants to analyze personal relationships and interactions with others and to seek more positive ways to handle difficult situations that occur inside the prison and those that may arise once they leave prison.

Towards the end of the ceremony, Leon Faruq, a program director for Operation Safe Streets in Baltimore, asked the men to be part of a revolution, a revolution that starts with self. He asked them to value their lives, because they are valuable. He asked the men to be a different kind of soldier – working to improve themselves and the world in which they live.

Within the graduation program, a quote was inscribed: “For reinforcing infinite evolution negativity does not succeed.” The participants in the Friend of A Friend mentoring project know that in order to develop oneself, in order to help others grow, one must maintain a positive mentality. Even in the face of great obstacles.