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May’s Volunteer of the Month: Toby

Toby Stansell


When did you start volunteering with Books to Prisoners?

I’ve been volunteering with Books to Prisoners since August 2014.

Why did you begin volunteering with this organization?

I’m actually a student at Garfield High School, so I’m completing service hours for graduation. I chose BTP out of all the possible organizations i could’ve volunteered at because the work I do here, I feel, has a direct and important impact on another individuals life. The act of helping to expand the intellect of prisoners who don’t have access to the same resources the average human being does, and being able to brighten their days in a very gloomy, oppressive environment is extremely rewarding to me.

What were your first impressions about BTP?

When I first arrived at BTP, I thought it was a really awesome and peaceful place, full of interesting books, people, and stories.

Did anything when you arrived, or anything that you’ve learned since, come as a surprise?

I came to BTP with a good amount of knowledge about prisons and prisoners; my dad is a federal public defender, so some of our closest family friends have been convicted clients of his. I think this knowledge of how detrimental the U.S. criminal justice system can be to individuals and their families is one of the reasons i felt it important to be spending my time at a place like BTP. A really new experience for me was reading personal letters from prisoners across the nation, and getting brief hints of their personality, goals, desires, and hardships through their words. This is something i hadn’t really imagined experiencing, so that definitely came as a surprise to me.

What do prisoners request that you may not have expected?

I didn’t expect a lot of prisoners to request magic/witchcraft related material; that particular subject seems to be quite popular.

What activities do you perform as a volunteer? Are any activities particular favorites for you?

As a volunteer I answer the letters of prisoners and package books to be mailed. Answering letters is probably my favorite activity because it’s the time that I feel the most involved with the lives of the people writing in. It’s extremely satisfying knowing that I’ve gathered together the perfect package of books, a package that’s going to help the recipient grow intellectually, or simply keep them entertained. It’s also a lot of fun browsing through the shelves of bizarre and interesting books.

Do you have a favorite author or genre to read? Other hobbies?

My favorite author would have to be Kurt Vonnegut. As for other hobbies, I love watching movies of all genres, I play a lot of soccer year round, and spend a lot of time with my friends and cats.

Any advice for people who may be reading this interview?

If you’re reading this and considering whether or not to volunteer here, definitely volunteer here. In my eyes, this is one of the most effective ways of spending your service hours. Also, always remember that prisoners are people with interesting and complex characters and personalities; they are just as human as any one of us, and should be treated as such.

Toby, thanks for talking with us today. We’re honored that you chose BTP as your service learning site!

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