The last thing handed to the 29 volunteers at the at the Dixon Correctional Center's Hospice/Adult Care Program likely was the sentence that rendered them prisoners of the State of Illinois.
So those men were understandably surprised on June 21 when Debbie Dean '11 MSW returned to the unit where she served her St. Ambrose internship just over a year ago to help present those prisoners the 2012 Rev. William Dawson Social Justice Award.
"Very emotional," said Dean, who joined MSW Program Director Katherine Van Blair, PhD and Pamela Long, director of field education, to make the presentation inside the walls of the DCC. "It was an amazing experience to watch their faces when they were told what the award was for. I think they were all very impressed that anyone would even consider considering them."
Receiving the SAU School of Social Work award would not be the first surprise experienced by the volunteers in the hospice/adult care program, one of only two such programs within the 30-facility Illinois Department of Corrections system.
Dean said those men, sentenced to the medium security facility 90 miles east of the Quad Cities for a variety of serious offenses, have surprised themselves by finding a capacity to genuinely care and assist fellow prisoners who are dying or struggling through their final years.
Now, a hospice caregiver herself for the Hospice of the Rock River Valley in Dixon, Dean spent 16 hours per week in the correctional center hospice unit during the 2010-11 St. Ambrose school year.
"It was an incredible thing to watch the bond between the volunteers and the hospice patients and to watch the caring that came across from people who were hardened criminals, some of them," she said. "They had done some horrific things and now they were helping another prisoner bathe."
Dean is certain the volunteers are transformed by the care-giving experience.
"They learn how to be nurturers," she said of a program the IDOC recently added at a women's correctional center in Dwight. "And these are men who I don't believe think they are like that prior to starting this program. But they learn that, absolutely, they do have that gift."
As part of her MSW internship, Dean said she conducted a roundtable interview with program volunteers last year, asking them to detail their most poignant experience in the program as well as their reasons for joining.
"The overwhelming answer was that they wanted to give back to a society they had wronged," she said of the latter question. "It was somehow a means of redemption for them."
Dean wasn't looking for redemption when she enrolled in the SAU School of Social Work at the age of 49. But having worked on the administrative side of hospice care for several years, she was looking to tap her own nurturing instincts.
"I just always felt there was more of me to give," she said. "As it turns out, I was exactly right."
Like those prison caregivers, Dean said she surprised herself a bit by returning to school for her master's.
"My St. Ambrose experience was amazing," she said. "I was scared because I had been out of school for so long. But I was so welcomed into the program. Everyone was so good to me. And it was a life-changing experience. Best thing I ever did."