December 20, 2017

Bridging the Urban/Suburban Divide Is the Goal of Crossing Borders Program

READING AND SHARING: People & Stories’ Crossing Borders program at the Bo Robinson facility in Trenton has been as rewarding for participants, including Libby Rainey, far left, and Ted Fetter, far right, as it has for clients.

By Anne Levin

For the past 31 years, People & Stories has been pairing clients of the Rescue Mission of Trenton, the Albert M. “Bo” Robinson Assessment & Treatment Center, and other Trenton facilities, with trained volunteers for reading, discussion, and sharing of literary short stories. Chief among the organization’s initiatives is Crossing Borders With Literature, which aims specifically to bridge gaps between members of the urban and suburban population.

The idea, says People & Stories executive director Pat Andres, was inspired a decade ago by a line from the Robert Frost poem, “The Mending Wall” — specifically, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, /That wants it down.”

“We wanted to have the wall-like borders in Mercer County that separate the urban and suburban to become more fluid, by bringing people across the borders,” Andres said. “I listen to NPR all the time, and there was a reporter on there recently talking about the sadness of only being surrounded by people with the same coordinates as yourself. And that relates so much to what we’re doing.”

A group of about 39 people from Princeton, Kingston, Skillman, and the surrounding area spend time with clients at the Rescue Mission shelter and Bo Robinson center, the latter of which aims to rehabilitate and ready inmates for re-entry back into society. “We call them participants and not volunteers,” said Andres, “because we are not trying to replicate the lady-and-gentleman-bountiful going in and volunteering to help the poor urbanites. It’s not that way. Participants get as much out of it as they give. The idea is for gifts to flow fluidly back and forth across those boundaries, and they do, sometimes in funny ways. It has really worked.”

Each Crossing Borders program is made up of 90-minute sessions held over eight weeks. The coordinator reads a short story aloud, chosen from a defined bibliography of works by recognized authors. Discussion follows.

“It’s the great equalizer,” said Ellen Gilbert of Princeton, who started out as a Crossing Borders participant and is now a facilitator. “The participants tend to have more of an education than the challenged population, but it absolutely equalizes you because you are all reacting to the story together. The process works, and it’s really moving.”

Famed poets Paul Muldoon and the late C.K. Williams have participated in Crossing Borders at the Rescue Mission. “C.K. came in dungarees and denim, and sat at the table and talked about himself and being a young fellow in France,” recalled participant Claire Jacobus of Princeton. “He read them one of his poems. They talked about it. And he said, ‘I expect all of you to bring me a poem next week.’ Every single one of them brought something. Because of his gentle communication and the power of literature and the atmosphere in the room, they were all willing.”

Kingston resident Libby Rainey, a therapist by training, equates participating in the program with a spiritual experience. “The setup of a closed group with the same people at the same time means that trust builds, and people take more risks in sharing themselves,” she said. “The more you are willing to participate, the more you get out of it. Barriers break down. It’s very hard to capture the essence of it in words.”

One of Rainey’s favorite memories of the program is a comment by one of the men at the end of the sessions. “You know, I thought we were all just criminals,” he said. Others have talked about how much they have learned.

“It’s exquisitely simple,” Rainey said. “You’re in a room full of 15 or more men, mostly of color, discovering potential they didn’t even know they had. You might read the same story you’ve read before [in previous sessions], but every time is different because the filter of each person’s perception and how they come up with incredible insights certainly explodes a lot of preconceived notions we upper middle class, white, older people might easily have over a lifetime. If you’re willing to be open to the glorious experience of it all, it’s about humanity.”