One might expect to find millionaire philanthropist Doris Buffett lunching at some swanky country club Wednesday morning, not sitting in a small library conversing with convicts.
But to Buffett, talking with participants in her Sunshine Lady Foundation is much more fulfilling than snacking on watercress sandwiches.
Buffett visited Coffeewood Correctional Facility Wednesday, meeting with close to 30 inmates who have attended college thanks to funding from her foundation.
Buffett, dressed impeccably, immediately assimilated herself with the inmates, blending right in as she told her story and talked about her foundation.
But the inmates were well aware of the Sunshine Lady Foundation, as 30 members of Coffeewood benefit from the grant that pays for their classes through Germanna Community College.
Frank Smart, of Burr Hill, is serving a 15-year sentence for rape and is using his education to better his life after prison.
“This is helping me keep a promise to my mother,” an emotional Smart said. “She started a business so her son could have an opportunity when he gets out of prison.”
The business, a nursery in Burr Hill, is also going to give opportunities to inmates who have been recently released from prison.
Those are the success stories Buffett likes to hear, as the foundation has been helping inmates make a transition back into the “real world.”
“Over 90 percent [of inmates] in prison today will be released,” Buffett said. “How do you want them to come back to society? They can pick up dirty tricks or they can have an opportunity to turn out better. We feel if you believe in such a thing as salvation, then they are living proof.”
There are 16 prisons in the nation participating with the Sunshine Lady Foundation and Buffett said she is open to adding more. She pointed out the government has recently cut funding for college programs in prison, so it makes her job more important.
“I think it’s a privilege to give people a second chance,” Buffett said.
At Coffeewood, 30 students will benefit from the foundation next year, but there were concerns that some may be moved to different facilities that didn’t offer college courses.
Another concern was other students wouldn’t have an opportunity to take courses, but Buffett said she would do all she can to ensure more students get the opportunity. A three-hour course through Germanna now costs $357, said Coffeewood librarian Jane Kotulka, who heads the program.
“The bottom line is that most people are upset it costs $25,000 a year to keep someone in prison, you can spend $2,000 (on education) and they don’t come back,” Kotulka said, citing studies that show students that receive an associates degree or better don’t return to crime.
“This keeps them from coming back and being a drain on society,” Kotulka said. “It’s the only way out of this quagmire.”
For Germanna professors Denise Guest and Frances Lea, coming to Coffeewood to teach has become one of their favorite aspects of working at Germanna.
“When I first started, I was somewhat reluctant,” Lea said. “But I have never had students be so motivated, so well-prepared and so grateful of the classes they receive.”
Guest, the business chair at Germanna, has been teaching at Coffeewood for three years, and said business management can be extremely important for the inmates to learn.
“One of their options is to own their own business,” Guest said. “They can get their accounting certificate and do their own books.”
One inmate summed up their appreciation by singing the spiritual “How great is your mercy” to Buffett.
By Jeff Say