The Value of Embracing a Difficult Past

Sometimes it’s easier to forget the past. To leave regrets and mistakes behind, and forge a new path.

But Carissa McGee does not shy away from talking about the tough moments in her life.

She and I first met in Albuquerque in September.

When we saw each other, we laughed and hugged as if we were old friends, but we had only talked on the phone once a few months earlier.

I called Carissa for a story I was writing on Project ECHO’s Prison Peer Education Project (PEP).

Since 2009, PEP has trained more than 500 inmates in the New Mexico state prison system to become peer educators and teach their fellow inmates how to stay healthy and cope with common struggles in prison, such as contracting infectious diseases, drug addiction and violence.

For many inmates, PEP opens a door to a world of new possibilities.

Peer educators receive training in skills like public speaking and group facilitation that help them prepare for a career.

Carissa is a former peer educator and I wanted to write about her involvement with the program.

When we spoke, I never could have imagined the story she would share with me, a complete stranger.

At 15, Carissa was the star athlete of her hometown, with basketball scholarship offers to almost every state college in the U.S.

By 16, she became one of New Mexico’s youngest female inmates after she attempted to kill her mother and sister.

Watch Carissa share her story with more than 400 people at the MetaECHO Conference:

Carissa is not proud of her past, but she refuses to sweep away her nine years of incarceration and the night that led to it, as if those things had never happened.

She admits that she entered prison in a state of fear and despair. But by the time she left, she had developed a passion to make the world a better place.

Today, Carissa is a community health worker and PEP community faculty member, training new peer educators in prison through videoconferencing.

I admire her so much for her commitment to help others. But most of all, she has taught me that our deepest regrets in life can become our greatest sources of strength.

Carissa has embraced her lowest, most painful memories and achieved success in the process.

Want to learn more? Read about the experiences of three former peer educators, including Carissa, who have all confronted their difficult past to help others with similar struggles.