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A First Book: Melanie G. Snyder’s Experience

Oct 5th, 2009 | By | Category: Front Page, People

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Although not a native of Elizabethtown, Melanie attended Elizabethtown Area High School and Elizabethtown College. Melanie asserts that Elizabethtown is the place that most feels like home for her. She left Etown immediately after college graduation to take a social work job in New York, then got an MBA and worked for Fortune 500 companies for over two decades. She, her husband, and two children have lived in New York, Virginia and England, but returned to Elizabethtown several years ago. Both of her children graduated from EAHS. In 2005, she left the corporate world to focus on building the freelance writing business that she had started back in the late 1990’s.

EJ: Could you tell us a little about the kind of work you currently do?

MS: I’ve written articles for numerous education, parenting and trade publications and I teach writing at Elizabethtown College and HACC. In addition, I teach youth leadership and life skills programs. Raising my own two kids (now both in college) made me passionate about helping kids to realize their potential and make positive life choices. Over the past four years, I’ve also been a volunteer for the Lancaster Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (LAVORP), doing victim offender mediations between young offenders and the victims of their crimes. A couple of years ago, I got a phone call from the LAVORP director that started me on a path that led to writing a book titled Grace Goes to Prison..

EJ: What was the motivation for authoring this book?

MS: The director of LAVORP phoned me the day after the Virginia Tech shootings to ask if I would teach a conflict resolution and anger management class for troubled teens. The timing of that call seemed pre-ordained somehow. I just felt I needed to say “yes.” Besides, I had taught similar courses in the corporate world and thought, how hard could it be? Well, needless to say, I was naïve in thinking that. I soon realized that I was in way over my head with these kids (a TOUGH bunch!) – and in desperation, stood up in church (Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren) one Sunday to ask for prayers for myself and my students. A friend named Jean Moyer told me she’d once met a woman named Marie Hamilton from State College who taught a similar course to prison inmates and thought surely she’d be able to help me. When we finally located Marie, she agreed to help me, and then said that she had retired and was looking for someone to write a book about her 30 years in the prisons. She shared a few of her stories and it was obvious that this was a book that HAD to be written. And now, two years later, here it is. I keep telling Marie that she needs to be careful what she wishes for!

EJ: Could you tell us a little about the book?

MS: There’s so much I could say, but, simply put, Grace Goes to Prison shows how one ordinary person, with genuine love and respect for all people (plus hefty doses of patience and persistence) can make a truly extraordinary difference. I think Marie Hamilton’s example has something to teach all of us, regardless of our political leanings, our views on crime and punishment or the particular social issues we care about.

EJ: How did your life change when you were working on it?

MS: Well, for one thing, I never imagined I’d ever spend time in prisons! Seriously, before embarking on this project, I had never given any thought to who was in our prisons, why they were there, or what really went on there. I guess it was sort of “out of sight, out of mind.” So, more than anything, this project has opened my eyes what is happening in our criminal justice system. And there are a lot of problems in what we’re doing. Don’t get me wrong – there are certainly many important things that the criminal justice system does that are essential. And there’s no question that there are people in our prisons who need to be kept out of society, for the safety of all of us. But there are also some very serious problems in our prisons and in our crime laws that every citizen and taxpayer really needs to understand, so that we can begin to work with our legislators toward much-needed improvements. We’re starting to see that the economic recession and state budget crises are finally bringing some attention to the issue of how much money we’re spending on our prison system and raising questions about what parts of that system are and are not working.

EJ: How has your life changed since writing the book?

MS: As a result of what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) through this project, I feel committed to raising awareness of the issues in our criminal justice system and doing what I can to work toward change. I’m not sure what the best way will be to do that. I know I still have a lot to learn about all of this, and some days it feels so massive and complex that I feel overwhelmed. But for now, I’m hoping that getting out and talking with people about Marie’s work in the prisons and sharing some of the stories of the incarcerated men and women she has worked with will be a good start.

I’ve had several opportunities already to get out and speak to large audiences about Marie’s work, and a number of people have told me that these stories really opened their eyes and touched them. That’s very humbling, but encouraging, too.

And I’m finding little ways to reach out to a few incarcerated men and women myself, by visiting in the prisons and corresponding with some of them.

I have to say, if someone had told me 3 years ago that this is what I’d be doing at this point in my life, I never would have believed it. Yet, knowing what I know now about these issues, I can’t pretend that I don’t know, and I can’t walk away from it without trying to do something about it.

EJ: What were the most notable challenges in completing this project?

MS: Patience isn’t my strong suit – but I found that a lot of patience is required when dealing with the massive bureaucracy inherent in the prison system. Marie Hamilton learned that three decades ago – and she has educated me about how to go about getting things to happen within that bureaucracy. I also had to examine some of my own pre-conceived ideas and biases I didn’t even realize I had, as I learned some of what really goes on in the criminal justice system.

EJ: Is there any advice that you could offer others who may be thinking about engaging in a similar endeavor?

Hmmm…that depends on whether the “endeavor” in question is writing a book or getting involved in the criminal justice system! Seriously, I’m learning so much myself in both of these areas that I don’t have any advice to offer anyone else, other than to always be open to new ideas, new learning and new opportunities. For me, the past two years have been filled with all three. I have no idea what lies ahead for me with this book and my growing involvement in criminal justice issues. For the moment, I feel grateful and blessed that my eyes, my mind and my heart have been opened by the example of an ordinary woman named Marie Hamilton who has made an extraordinary difference in the world.

EJ: Thank You.

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  1. I really like how you are helping the people in prisons by speaking with them. i know from personal experience how mentally drained, emotionally hardened and or broken hopes one can get and what they pick up in prison as to what was never an issue before being incarcerated. when I say ‘personal experience’ I mean that I know quite a few people that have been in and out of prison and they share their stories with me. i think it is a great thing you are doing. i learned a little about the incarcerated people but do know too, that I have much more, much, much more to learn.

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