Teaching from the inside out

MONROE -Veronica Rebeiro couldn’t imagine on that June morning in 1974 she would spend the next three decades behind bars. She was a 21-year-old Seattle University graduate reporting for an internship as she pulled her powder blue Volkswagen Super Beetle into the state reformatory parking lot.

“It was supposed to be a three-month stay, but it turned into a 30-year career,” said the retiring dean of corrections for Edmonds Community College.

Rebeiro, a Mill Creek resident, has worked at six prisons, but most of that time has been spent behind the walls of the Monroe Correctional Complex with some of the most hardened of the state’s criminals. EdCC and the staff of 25 that Rebeiro leads provide basic instruction, social skills and vocational education programs there.

She has been a counselor, instructor and administrator. A slight, animated woman at 5 foot 2 inches tall, most of her students tower over her.

Behind a patient smile is a mother who sees stark contrasts of the human condition and counts her blessings every day. Her own children grew up in a nurturing home and are now in college. Her students are all men, largely ill-prepared high school dropouts from splintered homes, many trying to figure out fatherhood from afar.

Her career has brought her face to face with illiteracy.

It has let her peer into the eyes of mental illness.

It has inspired her to start a parenting class for inmates after spending a Christmas Eve in the prison waiting area consoling a crying little boy in foster care who couldn’t see his father because he hadn’t followed through on the right paperwork.

It has meant being a lone voice with a message few want to hear: Help these men learn despite the horrible things they have done.

As she passes the watchtowers for the last time Friday, she expects to reflect again on her life’s calling.

“I have no regrets,” she said. “I think this job has really instilled in me who I am. I think I am more accepting of people.”

“I really feel lucky,” she said.

Earlier this year, Rebeiro was given EdCC’s annual Excellence in Education award, which honors an individual from the college who has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to education.

Jesse Hinton, 30, wasn’t there to watch. A student of Rebeiro’s, he has been in prison for eight years serving a second-degree murder conviction.

Three years ago, Hinton earned a General Education Development certificate, commonly known as a GED, after passing a series of basic skills exams.

Hinton, who has two sons, needed the GED before he could take a parenting class.

The degree could get help him into community college some day, but the advice on how to be a better dad will help him through the slow process of becoming the father he wants to be, he said.

“She does everything within her power to help us,” he said.

That’s her work ethic, inside and outside the prison walls, said Jack Oharah, president of Edmonds Community College.

“She has been a champion for corrections education in the state for a long, long time,” he said. “It’s a tough environment in which to work, because there is very little appreciation for what you do.”

When state lawmakers cut budgets, there is little public support to maintain programs for criminals. Gone for nearly a decade are the state-paid college and graduate level courses. Vocational class offerings have also been scaled back during that time.

Rebeiro points to studies that show offenders who develop job skills or improve their education are less likely to reoffend when they are released. A 2001 study of 3,200 inmates in Ohio, Maryland and Minnesota, for example, found that 21 percent of inmates who participated in an education program while in prison returned to prison after release, compared with 31 percent for those who did not take classes.

“As a taxpayer, I don’t want to keep building prisons,” she said.

Yet, as a college administrator, she had to keep cutting back.

“I never thought I would close vocational programs here during the summer, but that’s what I had to do,” she said.

“There is not a lot of hope for offenders right now,” she said. “There is not a lot of hope because there is not a lot of programs.”

Yet as she looks back over 30 years, she knows she has made a difference.

There’s the parolee learning to navigate the complexities of fatherhood. He was trying to get his daughter to make her bed, he reported. His daughter refused. He didn’t get mad. They made the bed together.

Then there was the former welding program graduate who excitedly called down to Rebeiro from an Edmonds Community College rooftop.

He had started life anew and found a job for a roofing company.

“Very naively, I once thought that offenders could make changes on their own,” she said. “I soon realized it took many people to help them make the change.”

In September, Rebeiro will start a new career, working for a private agency helping adults with special needs find places to live in their communities.

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