Driven by faith, retired Williams School teacher volunteers at prison

Edward Wheeler in his Waterford home, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Edward Wheeler in his Waterford home, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Multiple times a week, one can find Edward Wheeler within the halls of Radgowski Correctional Institution in Montville, where he regularly volunteers in his retirement.

Sometimes, he’s preparing to lead a chaplaincy service. Other times, he’s assisting with a high school diploma program. Recently, he began teaching a college English course. For years, he’s worked with People Empowering People, a University of Connecticut life skills course designed to build on participants’ strengths and experiences.

Asked what motivates him to spend so much time there, the retired Williams School teacher and dean doesn’t hesitate.

“It’s the second-greatest commandment,” Wheeler said, referring to passages that appear in the books of Matthew and Mark in the New Testament of the Bible. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Raised a devout Jesuit, the self-described “believing, committed Christian” began working in the prison when a friend suggested the idea not long after Wheeler’s 2009 retirement.

About four years ago, he signed on with People Empowering People, the UConn Extension program more commonly known as PEP.

In a setting not altogether different from the classrooms he frequented over the years, Wheeler leads discussions on things such as problem solving and communication skills over the course of about 10 weeks.

Sometimes, inmates read books such as "Man's Search for Meaning" and talk about how their lives compared to those of the people who lived in concentration camps like Auschwitz during World War II.

Other times, they see movies such as "Freedom Writers" and realize that wonderful things can be accomplished when a group works together and someone believes in it.

Through it all, Wheeler, who lives in Waterford, encourages the 10 to 15 participants to speak up and share their experiences with one another. The best times, he said, are when he doesn't say much at all.

According to UConn Professor of Extension Cathleen Love, who coordinates PEP, the program is active in five state facilities, including the women-only Janet S. York Correctional Institution in Niantic. All of its workers are volunteers, she said, and it's aided only by about $6,000 in state grant money for materials and transportation.

Over the more than 10 years the program has been operating in Connecticut's prisons, Love has attended countless course graduations, each time hearing what the inmates found most striking.

"What I have found is that the things that many people take for granted as 'common sense' or something taught to them at some point, it isn't always that simple for some people," Love said.

Some learn that it takes time to appropriately solve problems. Others learn that differences in tone and loudness are forms of communications, too. Some say the course made them re-evaluate their entire value system.

"I think for many of the inmates, it gives them a sense of self," Love said. "I'm always amazed. They don't see themselves as victims, and they don't blame other people for what has happened to them. And as a part of this course, they begin to say, 'I can do something about this.'"

As for Wheeler, Love said the inmates "love him."

"They tease him about being soft-spoken and mild," she said, laughing. "You can tell the genuine respect and love they have for what he does."

Wheeler said feedback he gets at the end of the course has been positive, and there’s a wait list to get in.

But he’s benefited, too, by genuinely interacting with and getting to know a portion of the population many never see.

“I know a lot of men there now,” he said. “They wave. They say, ‘Mr. Wheeler, good to see you.’ They express interest.”

“For an old white guy like me,” Wheeler continued with a chuckle, “it’s like I’ve gotten through some barrier.”

He doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what drives him, he said, but issues such as mass incarceration — the United States has one of the highest prison population rates in the world — and race relations are on his mind and “figure into my thinking.”

“I can’t do anything about the whole world,” Wheeler said. “But what I do weekly is some effort toward that, and that’s important.”

Wheeler is one of about 110 Protestant Religious Services volunteers who work in Radgowski. They fall under the watch of the state Department of Correction Protestant Chaplain Byron Westbrook, who also serves as pastor in New London’s Huntington Street Baptist Church.

According to Westbrook, clergy as well as lay leaders comprise the team, including at least three ex-offenders, a former bondsman, a retired college professor and a retired nuclear submarine commander. Together, they lead multiple discipleship and Bible study groups and provide chances for inmates to worship in English and Spanish.

In an email, Westbrook said the volunteers help inmates increase the likelihood of “living lives that honor God and serve their communities,” in part because of their authenticity in exposing inmates to new attitudes and strategies.

Westbrook said a “huge hole” would open up in the department’s rehabilitation services if people stopped volunteering.

“The work by employed, credentialed professionals needs to be supplemented by caring people from all walks of life who are here only because they want to be here,” Westbrook wrote. “And in the case of Religious Services volunteers, they feel called to be here.”

They also understand making a difference takes time, Westbrook said, and they are willing to work at it.

He called Wheeler an “illustrative example” of that.

“I sometimes say a volunteer has been ‘bitten by the prison-ministry bug,’” he wrote. “Ed must have been bitten at least three times.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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