Once an inmate, a mentor now pays it forward to others


“My name is Rachel Campbell, and I’m straight up off the block.”

These are the words that Campbell uses when she stands before her women’s group at the Hennepin County Adult Corrections Facility (ACF) each week. What she means is that she too has stood behind those bars looking out at a world that has offered neither kindness nor help when she desperately needed it. She knows what it feels like to be “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” and she has paid the price for giving up on herself and her dreams.

Campbell grew up in a poor family with a single mother and nine siblings. She loved her family, but ongoing issues of abuse and neglect led to feelings of hopelessness and anger — feelings that often drive teens to unhealthy choices. She left home early and began spending time with men and women who further diminished her chances of a happy or healthy future. Her mistakes led to incarceration.

The happy ending is that Campbell was able to beat the odds stacked up against her to make peace with the adversities of her earlier life. Through sheer will, an innate sense of goodness, and a few key adult figures that eventually emerged from the shadows of her life, Campbell became someone who others look up to and depend on as they work through issues that Campbell understands too well.

“I try to live my life by paying it forward,” Campbell shares. “I know what it feels like to be an angry victim, and my goal for the support group is to help women release the anger and hatred that paralyzes them. I have learned that most abusers and perpetrators of violence are victims themselves. They were damaged first. This knowledge of the pattern helped me forgive and move past the pain.”

The expression ”pay it forward” is used to describe the concept of asking that a good turn be repaid by passing it on to others. It is an act of kindness that expects nothing in return, yet has the power to create a domino effect of positive change in our world. Campbell learned the true value of this concept when she was serving time in the “workhouse,” as the ACF is also called.

After more than 30 years of living without any real connections to positive adults, two women, one an employee at the workhouse and the other a mentor through a prison ministry program, entered Campbell’s life and rocked her world. For the first time ever, she experienced unconditional love and steady friendship.

Sue Bangert was an employee at the ACF and ran the Power Program, a mentoring program for incarcerated adults. Bangert saw potential in Campbell. “She opened major doors for me, took me on interviews and got me a job when I got out,” said Campbell.

Sadly, Bangert died of cancer in 2009 and Campbell misses her intensely. “I believe she is still opening doors for me in heaven,” Campbell said, “and I know she is proud of me.”

Bangert was responsible for matching Campbell with her mentor and friend, Janet Peterson, who continues to play an important role in her life yet today, 20 years later.

“Janet was the one who first breathed life back into me. She is the best mentor in the world, and I love her for being the ear and safety net I had never before known,” said Campbell. “If you want to find me on birthdays and holidays, I’m at Janet’s house. She has become my family.”

When Peterson started showing up at the adult correctional facility, Campbell felt support without judgment. Campbell describes herself as an abused and damaged woman who had no one to talk to. Her anger was locked in, and it built up over time until she became the attitude she portrayed — obstinate, angry and impossible. Peterson’s patient, consistent friendship helped Campbell learn to open up and share her life story. Peterson provided that safe platform where Campbell was able to heal and grow, eventually renewed and transformed enough to mentor others with similar stories.

Even later, when Campbell returned to the streets and repeated some of her earlier mistakes, Peterson came and found her. “She knocked at my door and when I opened it, I just couldn’t believe that someone had come to check on me,” said Campbell. “No one had ever shown that kind of concern for my well-being.”

Today Campbell works for the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches Community Justice Program (CJP) training mentors to help incarcerated adults set plans and goals for reentry, provide support, and walk alongside them as friends and positive role models. She also leads a group at the Adult Corrections Facility called “Let’s Talk About It” — a program that encourages women to share their history and pain as they prepare for reentry into society.

CJP’s mentoring program has demonstrated positive outcomes each year, namely a steep decline in recidivism for those who stayed in their mentoring relationships. Campbell understands this phenomenon well and remembers wanting to please her mentors. She didn’t want to let them down.

“I know it’s a success story if offenders don’t come back,” Campbell affirmed. “The key to success is keeping the mentoring relationships intact.”

CJP does a thorough job of training mentors, giving them the tools to hang in there with people who continue to struggle. As is true of all mentoring relationships, longer match lengths result in more positive outcomes.

Campbell is a woman who knew violence and heartache in her childhood — a woman who cannot name a single positive role model in her early years. Today, Campbell is a college graduate, mother of two children that she loves dearly, and gainfully employed in a place that allows her to continue healing while helping others do the same.

She is currently in school to become a licensed alcohol and drug counselor. One day, she hopes to continue her education by pursuing her master’s degree in criminal justice.

Paying it forward is Campbell’s life motto. Her daily work as an employee of the Community Justice Project involves constant acts of kindness and empathy — the ingredients needed to heal damaged lives and spirits. She learned this behavior from the love given freely to her from her mentors — gifts that are now being paid forward to offer healing to others.


For more information about becoming a mentor for an incarcerated adult with GMCC’s Community Justice Program, call 612-721-8687 ext. 318. 

For more information about mentoring a child in your community, call GMCC’s youth mentoring program, Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, at 612-588-4655.

Nancy Torrison is director of community relations for the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, home of Kinship and Community Justice Project.