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Lives in Recovery

With training by the Billy Graham Center’s Institute for Prison Ministries, Chaplain Tammy Turcios mentors those who have often given up on themselves. by Annette Heinrich LaPlaca ’86

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Tammy Turcios had just closed up a business when she met the chaplain from the only women’s prison in Hawaii. So when the woman urged Tammy to help out in a new faith-based recovery program at the prison, Tammy, born and raised on the Big Island, dived right in, leading a team of inmates to paint a classroom’s walls with murals.

“I knew God promised he had a purpose for my life,” Tammy says. “I began to pray that purpose would include becoming a chaplain.” She trained on the job, helping and counseling women in a program that grew—and grew.

Twelve years later, Tammy’s job has two facets. She acts as chaplain, responding to the spiritual needs of all 300 inmates, handling requests for counseling, materials to read, and help in crises. “If a family member dies or is hospitalized,” Tammy explains, “one of us will attend the funeral or visit the hospital.”

Tammy also heads up the Total Life Recovery program, run entirely by volunteers (chaplains are unpaid in Hawaii, so Tammy’s work is volunteer), providing classes for inmates five days a week, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Classes include teaching about domestic violence, recovery, boundaries, search for significance, love/ sex addictions, and Bible studies, as well as hula dance, sign language, and crochet.

“The goal is to change their lives,” says Tammy, “because they come with enormous trauma, including every kind of abuse and neglect. Other people have given up on them, so they want to give up on themselves.” Tammy meets them on the common ground of her own brokenness. Her childhood failure in the school system (diagnosed too late as dyslexic), her experiences of isolation and personal trauma, her year-long bout of despair and substance abuse following the sudden death of her brother—all the pain of Tammy’s past gives women inmates hope as they see her joy, her passion to serve, and the effective purpose God gave her.

A recent graduate of the Billy Graham Center’s School for Correctional ministries, Tammy is “implementing a long, long list of tools” she absorbed from faculty mentors. “Now I have confidence in my gift for strategic planning,” says Tammy, “and something to offer when I sit down in a meeting with the warden.”

Tammy’s dream is “to see the women out of prison, in the community, speaking to others about how their lives have been changed by Christ.” That dream is already coming true. Lillian, an inmate who has graduated from the recovery program but stays active in it as a mentor, currently teaches other inmates using materials from one of Wheaton’s seminars. Another inmate, Jessica, is using Tammy’s course materials to lead a group of girls in the youth correctional facility.

“It’s about mentoring,” says Tammy. The one-on-one counselor assigned to each participant in the program sticks with that inmate, becoming her first mentor on the outside, once she is free. “I had a letter from a woman who came through our program. She told me everything good she’s doing with her life now comes from something she learned in our program. That makes everything worth it!”

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