The mirror of volunteering

Sometimes you see the world most clearly when you view it through a stranger's eyes.

That's what the teens in Wednesday's cover story learned when they traveled 800 miles from Boston to rural Kentucky. Some of what they found was familiar - poverty, families struggling to get by, drug problems. But enough was different that they began to reconsider their own lives.

The same thing happened to me on my first day as a volunteer at a women's prison. As I paced back and forth in the lobby before I entered the facility, I wondered what the inmates would be like.

One guard told me, gruffly, that the women were vicious and streetwise, which was why so many had no front teeth. The only soft thing about them was the foam curlers in their hair, he said. "You'd better be ready. They'll rip you apart."

Then another officer came along. "What are you telling her?" he asked, rolling his eyes. "They're just like you and me," he assured me. "Nothing to worry about."

When I met the inmates, 30 minutes later, a few were abrasive and had toothless smiles. Some proudly strutted around in their curlers.

But so many of them looked like people I'd ordinarily pass on the street. One woman's appearance was so much like mine that we could have passed for sisters.

As I visited the women each week, I was struck by how different our backgrounds and life choices had been - and how close their emotions were to the surface. The fact that they didn't hide how they felt meant that I couldn't escape their tears and joys, and thus became more aware of my own.

That's the value of seeing yourself reflected in someone else's eyes. It forces you to journey far from your comfort zone.

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