We were in route to The Ohio Reformatory for Women when we noticed a beautiful rainbow. Rainbows are stunning to me. I think that particular rainbow was a sign that an extraordinary day was ahead of us.
On August 29th, I had the honor to participate in The Big Table. Sponsored by The Columbus Foundation, the mission is to help strengthen the community by building a connection with people through open conversation. It was the second visit for me to the Ohio Reformatory for Women with The Harmony Project Choir. This time we were not there to perform, but to take part in The Big Table with some of the women at the prison. In my mind, I thought the experience would be listening to speakers share their experiences. I was completely wrong. The day was 100 choir members and 100 inmates sitting TOGETHER, “breaking bread” and talking to one another.
I heard cheering as walked into the meeting hall. I asked someone next to me if they were applauding for us. We both figured they couldn’t be, but the cheers and applause became louder the closer we approached the meeting room. When we walked in the room, we were greeted by women standing in light and dark blue clapping and waiting for us to join them at various tables. When three members of the choir and I found a group of women at a table to join, one of the choir members thanked the ladies for being so kind to us. One of the women replied, “Thank you for being here. We are glad that you are willing to come and actually talk with us.” I never expected such a warm and welcoming reception.
The theme was Freedom. We were asked what freedom meant to us. One person said that freedom was “just a state of mind.” Another said freedom to her was being able to go wherever and whenever she wanted. Someone said freedom to her was walking bare foot in the grass. The comments were insightful and powerful. I avoided speaking on what I thought about freedom. I just couldn’t think of a response.
The lunch was an open forum but just as our first visit, there were certain questions we were advised not to ask. We couldn’t ask how long they had to be there or if they had any children. We also were told to avoid direct contact with the women. However, we found most of the women openly shared their stories. I was able to connect with the young lady in the seat next to me. She and I learned our daughters were the same age. She told me about what brought her there twice. “Coming here changed my life. I’m doing better in here than when I was out,” she explained. Other women discussed their past lives dealing with addiction. “The first time I left, I knew I would be back”, someone said. We learned that everyone in the facility has a job and responsibilities. “Being in a place like this you get what you put into it,” the lady next to me explained. Another woman at the table told us about her love for butterflies and how she raises them. One girl said she loved to read and made it a point to read over 50 pages a day. One of the women asked each of us at the table to share stories about our lives and how we came to be members of the choir.
Before lunch we all had to be “counted.” The inmates were counted on one side and choir members were on the other. No one eats until everyone is where they are supposed to be. You could hear a pin drop from the silence.
We were served pizza and salad which was a special treat for the women at the prison. “We don’t get to eat like this much at all,” one of the ladies at the table mentioned. I realized I have taken some things for granted.
Our hour and a half meeting was ending as quickly as it began and we were told it was time for us to go. The girl next to me asked, “Are we allowed to hug you?” As I told her we were advised no direct contact we looked around the room. Inmates and choir members were hugging. She then said, “Well I’m going to go for it!” We each hugged our new friends from our table. As we said our good-byes one of the ladies said to me, “Enjoy the time you have with your little daughter.”
We do not know where our lives will lead us.
My description of participating in The Big Table at the reformatory does not give the whole experience justice. There was no fear or anger. There were tears and acceptance.
Freedom to me is being able to use my mind and learning that people who come into my life have something to teach me.