Thursday, 15 December 2011 20:11

Teacher helps inmates to right path

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Dec. 9, 2011  | 


Photo by ALAN WARD / DAILY PRESS & ARGUS / Instructor Kathy Hittle works with inmate Roger


Hittle has made it her mission to help prisoners and inmates, something she's been doing for more than 30 years in Florida and Michigan. She's currently a private, part-time contractor at the Livingston County Jail, Michigan where she gives General Education Development and life-skills classes.

Some might see the inmates only as a menace to society who deserve to be locked up, but Hittle listens to them and discovers people struggling with alcohol, drugs and family problems. Many would like to turn around their lives but have no support.

She doesn't judge them — just teachers them. She encourages them even when they have given up on themselves.

Her approach is successful and has helped thousands of inmates.

Inside a chilly room at the Livingston county jail, Hittle proudly displays a board showing names of 40 people who have obtained their GEDs this year; she hopes to have 50 names by the end of the year. An inmate must pass tests in five subjects — math, reading, writing, social studies and science — to obtain the credential equal to a high school diploma. Of the people who enroll in her GED classes, she said close to 90 percent graduate.

"I don't ever give up on them," said Hittle, who is married and has three grown children.

It's this dedication and compassionate approach that probably helps the slim-figured, blonde woman gain the respect of the inmates. She said she has never had a problem with the inmates she's taught.

"I care if you get a GED," she tells them. "I care if you get a job."

She said her strong faith in God keeps her going, and she truly believes men and women sent to jail are being given a chance to turn things around.

"You come to this jail for a greater reason than what brought you here," she said.

With her 30 years of experience, she created her own life-skills course that uses the inspirational messages in Mitch Albom's book, "Tuesdays with Morrie," and teaches job skills and parenting skills. To help prepare them for future employment, inmates practice interview skills through role-playing exercises and create a final presentation in which they must sell something.

As much as she enjoys seeing inmates receive a GED diploma, she also likes hearing about inmates who do well once they're released. Sometimes, they'll actually call her.

Hittle recalled getting a telephone call from a former inmate who had taken her life-skills course and was doing well. A father who had been in and out of jail, he wrote 24-pages about his life in an emotional outpouring and cried.

After leaving jail, he regained custody of his two sons, married and found a good job.

"Your life-skills class changed me and every aspect of me," he told her.

"That made me feel good," she said.

Lt. Tom Cremonte, Livingston county jail administrator, said Hittle is a true believer in inmate advocacy and looks out for them.

"She truly cares about their success and getting them educated so they can improve their lives," he said.

He said the inmates don't realize how fortunate they are to have someone like Hittle.

"Her heart is in it," he said. "She loves this work."

Roger Romanski, 58, who is serving an eightTeacher helps inmates to right path month sentence for drunken driving, said Hittle boosts the self-esteem of the inmates. He's worked 35 years as a carpenter and is a recovering alcoholic.

"She's a ray of hope," he said.

Romanski had passed four of the five GED courses, and he was looking forward to completing the science portion. He also took her life-skills course.

He said Hittle's enthusiasm and her willingness to help was "infectious."

"She makes you want to do well," Romanski said.

"She's probably our biggest cheerleader," he said.

He said he took the courses because he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity while in jail; he said many inmates spend most of the day watching television.

Romanski said he hopes the GED will help with employment opportunities after he's released.

"It's going to give me confidence to do the things that I thought were not available to me," he said.

Hittle's faith in people has never wavered.

"I think everybody, in their heart, has the desire to do well," she said.

However, Hittle recognizes some inmates don't get on a good path.

She has watched many inmates come in and out of jail on a regular basis. Even some of those who were phenomenal in her classes have struggled and returned to their old habits. She knows of at least eight inmates who left jail and soon died of drug overdoses.

Hittle, who grew up in Detroit, said her compassion comes from her parents. She recalled how her parents would help families who had members who were in prison. They would pack up clothing and gifts, and the entire family would deliver them to those in need. She said her parents valued community service and giving back.

"If you have the means to help somebody out, just do so," Hittle said was her parents' message.

Another was, "You can never give too much."

Hittle wants inmates to leave jail with hope and the tools to do better, but also with a clear understanding things won't be easy.

She said they will face challenges because they have a criminal record. Still, she said they have served their time, and she wants them to take a new path. With a GED, she said they can apply for grants to go to college.

"You know life can always turn around and not to be impulsive," she said.

Besides furthering their education and moving on with their lives, she hopes her students will reach out to help others.

"The more you help other people, the more it will come back to you," Hittle said.

Contact Daily Press & Argus reporter Jim Totten at (517) 548-7088 


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