Mid-America Speakers Bureau touches souls, inspires hope throughout NDCS

Mid-America Speakers Bureau touches souls, inspires hope throughout NDCS


CONTACT Cara Wilwerding, Communications Manager

OFFICE 402-479-5712 | cara.wilwerding@nebraska.gov

Dec. 15, 2017 (Lincoln, Neb.) – “I can’t wait to go back again.”

Speakers, presenters and entertainers from the Mid-America Speakers Bureau (MSB) have echoed these seven simple words time and time again after sharing their stories at Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) facilities.

MSB President Barry Carlson said despite setting a goal to speak in a prison before August of 2016, he was very apprehensive about his first visit to the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (NCCW) in May of that year. Getting out of his comfort zone, however, resulted in what he says was the most rewarding speech he’s ever given in his life.

“The takeaway for me was that I came away with a whole different perception about prison life and the people who are incarcerated,” Carlson said. “When you get inside the barbed wire fences, you find human beings that are warm, welcoming and so, so, appreciative.”

Carlson formed MSB in 2010 with only eight speakers. Now, the organization boasts about 100 speakers, presenters and entertainers, with an additional 300 on a waiting list. Some of the more high profile speakers charge up to $15,000 an hour. The cost to NDCS? Carlson asks only for attentive audiences.

“This is all donated time,” NDCS Reentry Program Manager Steve Fannon said. “It’s out of the goodness of their own hearts. They’re just here because the talent that they have in sharing their story will enrich the lives of the people in the audience.”

If MSB were charging NDCS their normal rate, speakers thus far would have amounted to over $50,000, Carlson said. After seeing success at NCCW, MSB speakers have expanded their reach to the Nebraska State Penitentiary (NSP), Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (TSCI), Work Ethic Camp (WEC), Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility (NCYF) and Community Corrections Center-Omaha (CCC-O).

Fannon has heard emotional and profound sentiments from 15 different speakers, and said speakers leave with just as much as they gave away.

“We’ve thanked them and they’ve fired back with, ‘you don’t know how much this experience touched me; how thankful I am for what I took away from today.’”

In addition to incarcerated individuals, NDCS team members have become regular faces in every crowd.

“It’s really cool to see our team members hearing the same empowering message that the population is,” Fannon said. “That gives them something to talk about; something in common.”

Fulfilling a promise made at the beginning of the year, MSB brought a speaker to NCCW every month of 2017. V.J. Smith – former Executive Director of South Dakota State University’s Alumni Association – finished off the year with his speech, “The Richest Man in Town” on Dec. 13. His speech is about the life of Marty – a thoughtful, gracious and hospitable cashier at Walmart. While Marty may not have been rich monetarily, he was rich in kindness.

“Care is the most important word in the English language,” Smith said, reminding listeners to give back every chance they get. In life you have to try to do a little bit more, he said. Anyone can take a couple extra steps – and those steps have the potential to go a lot farther.

Smith is a two-time finalist in Toastmasters’ International’s “World’s Championship of Public Speaking.” He speaks 120 to 150 times per year, and the practice shows in his conversational and light-hearted tone. Throughout his hour-long speech, he had the entire audience cracking up with laughter, but also wiping away tears and digging deep into their conscious minds. Smith told the women listening that they are not defined by their histories, their crimes or their current incarceration.

Opportunities to hear motivational speeches in person are rare, especially in prison. Incarcerated since August of 2016, Chelsey Cook said she was blown away by Smith’s words.

“Everything that he was saying just hit home with me,” Cook said. “I try to stay positive because positivity is infectious. You never know whose life you might change.”

University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) softball coach Rhonda Revelle challenged some of these same women to “28 days of being your own best friend.” Think often about the things that you’re thankful for, she said. Talk positively about yourself and learn to love who you see in the mirror.

Revelle adamantly preached the importance of self-care because caring for yourself allows you to begin care for others, grow as a person and lead a successful life. It’s a lesson that has certainly worked for Revelle, who has taken the Cornhuskers to victory 937 times – boasting more wins than any other coach in the history of Nebraska Athletics.

“This was exactly what we needed to hear right here and right now,” one incarcerated individual said.

Speaker Neil Halford lost his eye sight at the age of two, but this did not stop him from becoming a top wrestler in the state of Nebraska. Halford said he’s rarely presented to a group as attentive and responsive as the ladies at NCCW. Audience members rated Halford’s presentation with 100 percent satisfaction, saying they would definitely attend more like his in the future.

“I would never have expected him to be able to teach and touch my soul that much,” one incarcerated woman said.

Closing out his speech, Smith reminded the women at NCCW that relationships are what matter most in life. You get what you give – whether it’s a handshake, smile, conversation or hug. Going above and beyond, doing a kind deed for a stranger and practicing gratitude are all acts that always result in contentment.

“Happy people aren’t always grateful,” Smith said, “but grateful people are always happy.”

It was no surprise when Smith’s speech – like most MSB speeches within NDCS walls – ended with a standing ovation.