“It doesn’t matter if you’re in a cell, a cave, or wherever. If we take the time to change ourselves for the better, the world will improve too because we are all a part of it.”  – Ron Zaleski, Founder of The Long Walk Home (TWLH).

This past December, Ron Zaleski was graciously invited to speak at a prison and county jail in Florida: Union Correctional Institution in and Clay County Jail. At both locations, Ron was able to spread his message to the inmates, specifically those who are Military Veterans. He reminded them that the only prison that holds us is within our mind, and it is up to each one of us to break free from our most destructive thoughts. The Long Walk Home believes that judgement towards another is counterproductive, as it forces them to become defensive. Instead, our organization believes in embracing others for who they are today, and inspiring them to become the best versions of themselves.

At Union Correctional Institution (UCI), 87 Veterans were treated to a pizza party and each Veteran received gift bags that included personalized letters. These gifts were donated by the Englewood Rotary Club of Florida who generously gave $1,500 to make the event possible. The Long Walk Home (TLWH) later received a letter (pictured) from the Veterans at UCI, who expressed their gratitude. Many inmates rarely receive visitors, so to be visited by TLWH was a welcome surprise, especially just before the holiday season. One inmate, who is the President of UCI’s Veteran Organization, told the story of how women during World War II would bake cookies of the troops to remind them that they were loved and not forgotten–that’s what Ron is to them. Ron had previously visited UCI in June, after an inmate named Ed Shook walked 100 miles to honor his fellow Veterans. Ed came up with the idea after he learned about Ron’s 3,400 mile walk across the United States.

A letter from the Veterans at UCI, thanking Ron & The Long Walk Home.

UCI is unique in that all 87 Veterans live together in one dorm. There is a Military-like comradery that exists there, which is unusual at many other prisons. Many strong and long-lasting friendships have been built, and there has been only one instance of violence in the three years since the program was created. For their library Ron donated two copies of his new book, The Long Walk Home: A Veteran’s Barefoot Journey Across America. Hopefully, this will leave a lasting imprint on the inmates.

Accompanied by Terri Miller, our Assistant Director, Ron then visited Clay County Jail in Green Cove Springs, FL. Whereas UCI inmates have already been sentenced and incarcerated for decades, inmates in Clay County Jail are still awaiting their sentence. Some may only stay there a day, while others may be there for up to five years. While TLWH was not allowed to bring food or gifts into the building, the inmates were still thankful to have received visitors. Ron told stories about his tribulations after leaving the Marines in the 70’s, admitting that he was angry at the world and made many mistakes as a result. Clay County Jail also offers support and programs to Veterans, and a copy of Ron’s book was donated there as well.

Change does not occur overnight, and creating it requires constant work and attention. Knowing this, TLWH is working hard to develop it’s flagship Mentorship Program at both UCI and Clay County Jail. This program guides individuals along a series of 10 personal challenges, which are designed to help them tackle the common obstacles that are faced in day-to-day life. Expressing gratitude, apologizing to others, mending broken relationships, and developing better habits are just a few of the practices that the Mentorship Program teaches, and TLWH believes it would be an invaluable resource for inmates. Many inmates lack outside support and have seemingly burnt all their bridges, so they use jail as a revolving door. By introducing them to the Mentorship program, TLWH hopes to break this cycle.

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