Ministry of Presence

When Sheil Catholic Center campus minister Tim Higgins asked, "Who wants to go to jail?" at a Mass last fall, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior Alexis Echevarria thought it sounded interesting.

"I keep going back because I feel like I can never leave," Echevarria said of the prison ministry program that sends Northwestern students to mentor incarcerated youth. "It has changed my worldview."

Echevarria is one of approximately 25 students who have participated in the program since its creation six years ago. Volunteers — on average, two or three students each quarter — travel to the southwest side of Chicago once each week to mentor young men and women detained at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

The center houses 11- to 17-year-olds who are awaiting court dates. Most residents are there for drug- or gang-related crimes, Higgins said.

"The people we went to see are just kids," says former volunteer Erin Dostal (J09). "They're in prison for a reason, but they're often products of disadvantaged social situations. It's amazing how much of a difference the volunteers can make by being an adult presence in their lives."

Northwestern student volunteers mentor detainees one-on-one in common areas. The volunteers strive to provide a stabilizing and compassionate presence through their visits. "It's really about having a conversation with the kids," Higgins said. "We're not there to play psychologist. It's a matter of listening and trying to empathize with them."

— Katie Glueck (J12)