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Meet Rocky, Volunteer of the Month for February 2023

What got you interested in BTP to begin with, or what made you start volunteering? Does it tie into the rest of your life in any meaningful way?

I’ve always loved to read and have been involved in other literary and book-related organizations in the past. As for BTP specifically, I discovered the organization by chance. Pre-pandemic, it had shared space in the same church basement as my old community choir. During our breaks, I was always intrigued by the people working away in the small space as I passed to get a sip of water.

I started volunteering in 2021 after the initial round of vaccinations had spread through Seattle but before most other organizations had re-opened their doors. I had been living and working at home alone, and I wanted to do something to help people who were similarly socially isolated. Volunteering quickly put my situation into perspective. It is hard to feel trapped by a “lockdown” when you can go outdoors wherever you want, cook and eat whenever you want, and read whatever you want.

Is there anything you especially like about volunteering with us? What are your favorite parts of the process?

I love reading and fulfilling requests. I love how each person is unique and how the simple reality of that comes across in their letters, from not just their book requests but from things like their handwriting to sentence style to paper choice.

I love when I get a more obscure request for a specific author or niche subject and we actually have the donated material to match it. I love (though not as much) when we don’t have the donated materials but I can google the respective authors/titles and find a hopefully good substitute.

Most of all, I love the thought of our book packages arriving and giving people days of entertainment they previously did not have. I love the thought of them potentially sharing the books with friends when they’re done or simply keeping them as a reminder of something that is now personally theirs.

Everybody starts off by responding to letters, even if they eventually move on to wrapping or other tasks. Some of the letters can be memorable. Are there any requests that surprised you, or that you remember standing out in any way?

I remember one man who mentioned an upcoming eye surgery and asked for books in large print. That stuck with me because it’s not just young people who use our services. Lifetime sentences are lifelong, and older inmates need our support too, especially with the rise of eBooks which are killing the market for large print books and making them harder and harder to find for the isolated seniors who currently need them the most.

I’m also always touched by the letters from people who’ve requested books in the past and write follow-up letters of gratitude with no additional requests. They make me wish I could do more.

In the time that you’ve been here, do you think that your views on the prison system, or what it’s like to be incarcerated, have changed? Please feel free to talk about those views if you would like.

I don’t think my views on the prison system have changed since I began volunteering, because I already had some knowledge and interest of the system. Flawed as fictional representations are, I think movies/shows such as The Shawshank Redemption and Orange is the New Black succeed at highlighting various injustices of the “justice” system. For instance, the “BROOKS WAS HERE” scene from The Shawshank Redemption has stuck with me since I was a teenager, and even though Brooks was a fictional character, I still hope my efforts can help other real-life people out there like him.

As for things like prison abolition, I’m not an advocate for that (largely because of the impact to equally marginalized people such as Racheal Angel Abraham), but I am in favor of prison reform. For-profit models are predatory and akin to Victorian debtors’ prisons. Our justice system needs to distinguish more between violent and non-violent crimes, and anyone who willfully uses the term “correctional facilities” is kidding themselves given the known lack of investment in that area.

Do you have any book recommendations for us? Is there anything you especially like to read in your spare time?

A fair few. I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction lately. My favorites from last year are Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, and The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt. I enjoy reading books across the political spectrum; being able to agree with an author on certain points while disagreeing with others helps test my existing beliefs and keeps my mind open to new thoughts, arguments, and ideas. I don’t believe in self-censorship.

As for fiction, I’m attempting to read a chapter a day of War and Peace this year. It’s an easier read than most people assume, simply long. Other fiction books I’ve enjoyed in the semi-recent past include both Uprooted and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, as well as Exhalation by Ted Chiang.

Are there any other parting words that you’d like to share with whoever’s reading this?

Keep reading, and don’t take our instant access to libraries worth of books and media for granted.

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