Posts Tagged ‘pep guest blogger’

The following was written by PEP’s photographer: Israel Thompson (a.k.a. “Shutterbug”). You can see his work here.

While shooting at the Estes Unit event at PEP the other day I got ambushed with a microphone that was thrown into my hand. Jeremy, thank you for the heartwarming words about not being a staff member, but saying that I “should be”. I’ve never pre-rehearsed or planned a speech for the occasion, perhaps I should have, but the words I envisioned coming out if the opportunity ever presented itself didn’t quite bubble to the top. Instead, my response to the question “Why do you keep coming back to PEP?” came out rather short and lame. Obviously not a public speaker, I muttered something about being inspired and quickly handed the microphone back.

That being said, albeit a bit late and without an audience of peers and microphone, I’d like to somewhat retroactively rectify the situation.

For me, my experience with Prison Entrepreneurship Program started in May of 2012 through a friend and fellow co-worker when I received word they were in need of an event photographer. After a meeting with the COO of the organization, Phi Tran, and a bit of back and forth finalizing details, the relationship took root and I commenced with Class 17.

My initial impression upon entering the prison was nothing at all as anticipated. Where I expected to be face-to-face with disgruntled prisoners playing the stereotypical Hollywood portrayed “acting hard” role, mad dogging me and giving me the ole intimidating stink eye, I was surprised to be met with quite the opposite. I was rushed into a room they call the “PEP Room” and went straight to work with my camera. The room was bubbling with festivity! The atmosphere in this place was overwhelmingly excited! Everyone had smiles! Everyone greeted you and wanted to shake your hand! Everyone offered to help, if needed. The vibes being received all seemed to convey a resounding message, “YESS!!”. Music pumped loudly and the guys were all crowded around in a circle, apparently having an improvised dance party while waiting for what they call “Executives” to arrive. As I briefly surveyed the scenery from outside the circle, I noticed they all had decorative stuffed animal-oriented hats on. I guessed perhaps to lighten the mood and draw smiles. Which worked! Hurriedly though, I surveyed no longer and made my way to the middle of the circle to catch the action. These guys were having an excellent time! Some, with extraordinary dance skills whisked around on the carpet pulling off break dance moves I wouldn’t have thought possible, while others with lesser skill got out and a danced too without a care in the world. I was dumfounded. And I grinned from ear-to-ear while being privileged to be a part of it.

Don’t get me wrong — this was indeed a prison, and for all I knew I was rubbing shoulder-to-shoulder and bumping elbows with murderers, hardened criminals, people that society had given up on, and most probably at one time or another (or even now??), even had nothing to lose between the walls they found themselves trapped within. But… The comfortable feeling that came over me… It was instantaneous. It was as if a spirit of joy flowed all about. And I know I’m a guy. And it’s different for a guy as opposed to a lady, but I never once felt strange, awkward, or threatened. To me, just that alone was amazing! Profound! And to me it showed right there, in sneak peek fashion, just what this program is able to do.

Fast forward to today.

I’ve been with PEP for over 2 years. I’ve photographed numerous events, both in and out of prison. From Class Kickoffs to Graduations and a few events in-between here and there, I’ve had had my fair share of variation. And I’d like to share with you what I see from a photographer’s perspective. NOTE: much of this is directed towards the participants when addressing “you” in the words following.

First, I wasn’t lying at all when I muttered I was inspired. I truly am. When I leave each event, I’m filled with inspiration as I drive home. It’s as if I have a rejuvenated renewed vigor and you guys — and all the people participating — have inspired me to do better for myself. Likened to an electric charge, my batteries have been filled!

When I’m photographing, I am there to work, so I cannot participate in the festivities like everyone else. I cannot sit and listen to each participant pitching their business plan. I cannot listen to each and every speaker with undivided attention. And for that matter, I barely even have time to clap. Because alas, clapping and happy candid faces are something that need photographed! So… What I take in — not by choice, but by trade — I take in sparingly, almost from an outsider’s point of view. Trust me when I say, however, what I’m able to retain or soak up, is not at all diluted.

When I see each and every one of you guys get up in front of a packed crowd in the lunch room (or PEP room) and tell your story bearing your soul, I have the greatest respect for what it is you are doing right there in that moment. And that respect carries over permanently because you have given me a window into your soul. When you’ve taken the time, with a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes, to share with everyone where you’ve come from and what matters to you, you’ve shown me your true character, the real you that’s deep down inside without worry of what others may think, I admire that thoroughly. It makes me examine myself, remember some of the things I’ve been through, the hardships, the ups, the downs, and that it’s not only that it’s not where I’ve been but where I’m headed that matters, but some of those past experiences have given me immeasurable understanding and wisdom — things I need not forget. Needless to say, you trigger deep thoughts within.

With many of these business plan pitches I hear I may look like I’m in the zone with a face of concentration as I’m moving about, squatting, photographing, crouching and moving from side to side, but my interest is incredibly peaked. I want to listen to every detail, from beginning to end. I sometimes pause what I’m doing just to hear a little bit more before moving onto my next task. I’m amazed at how you all memorize 10-15 minutes worth of words and recite it without pause. When a business plan ends. I want to clap like everyone else. And sometimes, I’m even thinking to myself “Ohh ohh! I have a great idea that would probably help him with his presentation!” And some of those times when the possibility arises, with an enthralled demeanor, I gladly share those thoughts.The stark reality of these plans for me is, though, I am not a public speaker. So, it’s hard for me to fathom the hundreds upon hundreds of times you guys have to get up in front of everyone and recite. Major kudos to you there. What’s nearly equally remarkable is how all of your class brethren sit watching your pitch attentively, with a face of utmost interest. The support that is shown is intriguing. And again, I am inspired.

What I observe with each class from beginning to end is miraculous. I see a fresh new group of people uncertain of what’s to come. “Investigators”, as you were referred to recently. Many of which haven’t quite given yourselves to the program. Testing the waters, if you will. Some of you won’t make it to graduation, but most of you will. The spirit of remaining steadfast, diligent, without giving up is instilled over and over and made a topic of utmost importance. With all the encouraging words floating around, I find myself speaking words of encouragement in passing and truly hoping each and everyone one you make it, as well. It’s as if something in the air is rubbing off on me and I’m part of your family sitting in the stands at your high school football game. I’m jumping up and down, screaming at the top of my lungs, cheering you on. Rain or shine, sleet or hail, doesn’t matter whether you you’re the star of the game, make a big play or just get out onto the field and play, I’m there… cheering.

Coming back to photograph you guys at graduation is like night and day. This is when the faces are no longer new, but all are familiar. Those lone stragglers from Kickoff that wouldn’t smile for headshots, the ones that acted like they couldn’t let their guard down, that still had something to prove… that’s almost all gone now. Everyone is smiling uncontrollably. Your hard work has paid off. It’s great to see each and every one of you again. It truly is. And I am astounded at how you’ve grown in leaps and bounds in the process. It’s not everyday you see someone completely change their lives around for the better. It’s mind-blowing to be a part of — and moving in so many ways. I mean, because, if “this guy” can do all of this, then I can too! These things I’ve been putting off. Things I’ve been pro-crastinating getting done? Why should I sit by idle and slacking in these areas of my life, giving myself all these excuses when guys like this aren’t? They are giving it their all, why shouldn’t I?

In regards to graduation day, a quick fact: something I’ve witnessed that rings true every time, the ones that look like they are trying hardest not to smile, like they have something to prove or cannot let their guard down, those are the ones that cry the hardest when it comes time to walk down the isle. Why is this, I ask? Something to ponder.

Graduation isn’t the end. For many of you, the true test is being servant leaders. Others, it’s actually getting out and being exposed to the outside world. This is when familiar faces become a great sight to see. On the inside, Servant Leaders, I shake your hands the longest and converse with you the most. It seems as if we’ve seen each other enough times there’s somewhat of a bond between us. I’m enamored by what you do for each upcoming Class. It’s a true display of stewardship. For those inside and those that have made it out, seeing your act of sacrifice and continuation in the program motivates me more than you know. How your lives have been changed and continue to grow… it increases the yearning in me to give something back in life… exponentially.

Thank you for that. And, if that wasn’t enough of an answer to “Why I keep coming back to PEP?”

Well, besides being paid. And besides being inspired exponentially. Hearing people like Al Massey, Bert Smith, Jeremy Gregg and all the other PEP staff get up and speak definitely adds icing to the cake. When I hear Al Massey speak, I think to myself, “This guy knows all the right words to say for every given situation!” I mean, sometimes I wonder where he comes up with the stuff he says?! Seriously! Is it that he’s lead by The Spirit and speaks fully improvised? Or are all his words carefully calculated, thought out and rehearsed in advance? It’s one of those mystical questions like “What is the meaning of life?” or “Do unicorns really exist?” Al Massey, your speeches alone would make one want to come back. No lies.

As for Bert, every time I see or hear Bert speak, an endearing spirit of love radiates from him. It’s captivating. I get a genuine sense he sincerely and unabashedly cares for each and every one of those in the program, let alone the staff and executives. This is the type of quality that’s remarkable to see in the CEO of the company. And it’s the type of trait that draws you in, makes you want to come back and see more. It’s an attraction.

All that being said, being the photographer for PEP has become quite a bit of an honor. I enjoy capturing your smiles, your laughs, your tears, hugs, handshakes, memorable moments, family portraits and everything else I can aim my lens at while there. When I sit for hours upon hours wading through thousands of photos from your events, I sit with a smile on my face. And I take pleasure in every minute of it.

But… the real reason I keep coming back to PEP is… THE COOKIES! Keep giving me cookies and I am yours forever.




Israel Thompson
Your photographer

The following was written by a new volunteer to PEP: William Brant Wallace, PhD, the COO and Treasurer of e-World Systems Ltd. Brant is also officially the 100th person to join the PEP Partners program, through which he and others make monthly gifts to sustain and grow PEP’s mission. You can learn more about this program here.

 Matthew 25:36 (NIV):
I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.


I spent the day in a State of Texas prison yesterday.

A friend and colleague (thank you Keith) invited me to attend what he described as “Shark Tank in Prison”. The day was called ‘Pitch Day’ and was organized, run, and hosted by the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (

Not knowing much about the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, although my friend gave an extensive briefing on the way to the state penitentiary, I was pensive. Once we arrived, we were asked to exchange our driver’s licenses for issued ID’s, remove everything out of our pockets, take off jackets and shoes, walked through metal detectors, were pat down, and, as very large and heavy metal doors slid shut and locked behind us, we were escorted to interior rooms of the prison. Having been a guest of Harris County Texas several times in my life, this experience was a little unsettling.

As we settled in, a group of 60 business owners and executives interacted with 77 inmates of varying backgrounds. These prisoners were welcoming, excited to see us, were pleasant to interact with, and, equipped with a purpose and months of preparation, were smiling and having fun. As the 20th class of the program, the prisoners were selected from several thousand applicants from around the State of Texas’ prison system. Once accepted, they had undergone rigorous education, training, peer character assessments, and were asked to create a business plan.

Yesterday, they pitched their business plans to panels of people like me. We coached and critiqued their presentations, pitches, and plans. After the panel members had heard all of the pitches, we were given an opportunity to speak with them one-on-one.

When I spoke with them one-on-one, it no longer felt like I was speaking to someone in prison but like I was speaking to an emerging entrepreneur asking for guidance, a shot, and capital. As a matter of fact, they were more receptive and prepared than most entrepreneurs that I hear from on a daily basis. As the day concluded, we heard reflections from various executives and prisoners. After the prisoners were escorted out and went back to their daily routines, we were asked to consider continued support and involvement of PEP (

This morning, I felt compelled to share a little of my PEP experience and to ask that as our weekend begins, that we remember to give a chance and hope to those who are in need, sick, and in prison.


Father God, thank you for calling us to give clothes to those in need, to look after the sick, and to visit those in prison. Thank you for using us to give hope to the needy, the sick, and prisoners and captives. As we are consumed by our busy lives, please help us to remember your charge. Through following your charge, please teach us to take the time to work with those less fortunate than ourselves. In doing so, please guide us to follow Christ’s example by giving the most unlikely members of society a chance and a shot. All of this we ask in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The following was written by Lance Manning, a member of the PEP Dallas Advisory Board who works as a R&D startup consultant with the Larta Institute. 

Recently, thousands gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “March on Washington”.  Our nation considered the purpose of the original event and what it meant for civil rights.  Video clips of the “Dream” speech reminded us of the vision for unity, compassion, and equality for all citizens in this great nation. 

During the same week, I attended an event in Dallas for the Prison Entrepreneurship Program hosted by the Communities Foundation of Texas.  We were there to celebrate the United Way of Dallas’ three-year, $750,000 investment in PEP.  Local leaders in business, government, and philanthropy attended and learned about the origins of the Program and heard the personal testimonies of some of our graduates.

John M. told of his many trips to prison and how he’s determined not to go back.  Because of his choices, he lost people dear to him and hope for a good life.  Graduating from PEP and getting a job upon release gave him hope.  He is the first felon hired by a local auto dealership who changed their hiring policy because of the Program’s reputation.  He has been promoted and asked to consider this as his career track.  He now speaks of being strengthened to live up to the expectations the PEP community has for him.

Clarence C. is a very grateful man who has recovered from some bad choices made earlier in life.  The entrepreneurship skills he has honed through the Program motivated him to start a services franchise business.  PEP gave him the know-how and motivation to pursue his dream and be an entrepreneur.  Later this month, he will be on the Steve Harvey Show to share his story.

As I sat in the audience, I wondered about the “dream” of Dr. King.  What did he want for future generations?  I felt impressed that our Program – executives helping the encarcerated help themselves -might be part of his vision.  The handshake of brotherhood that is PEP symbolizes hope, encouragement, and economic prosperity for hundreds of men and countless others in their circles of influence.

The message conveyed on this souvenir pin from 50 years ago was a driving motivation for the march and is a modern-day emblem of the power of entrepreneurship reflected in the ongoing success of the Program.

Entrepreneurship is a proactive quality championed by self-reliance, faith, confidence, and the power to take charge of one’s economic future.  It’s not about waiting for the government to do something.  President John F. Kennedy said it best, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  Helping others achieve economic self-reliance when much of society has turned their back on them is what PEP is about.

The dream for jobs, freedom, and economic prosperity is alive and well in Texas.

Fellow entrepreneur and Dallas Maverick’s owner, Mark Cuban, spoke of entrepreneurship as something bigger, something to consider for a nation in economic malaise.  “The cure for what ails us is the Entrepreneurial Spirit of this country.  We are a nation of people who encourage, support, and invest in those of any and all age, race and gender who will use their ingenuity and come up with, a new idea.  It’s always the new idea that re-energizes this country……  Now is the time for Entrepreneurs to step up and do our part for our country. It’s up to us to start businesses and create jobs. That is the cure to this country’s economic problems.”

PEP is stepping up.

We are citizens united for a better future.  This pin given out at the March on Washington 50 years ago represents the dream of equality and prosperity for all.  Through dedication, through unity, through entrepreneurship, we are honoring Dr. King’s dream for a better future for all citizens.

Lance Manning with Participants in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program

Lance Manning with Participants in the Prison Entrepreneurship Program

Thank you to our volunteer Amanda for writing this great blog about her experience visiting PEP this past week:

Today I went to prison.

I have supported Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) for several years with small financial gifts and this year as an Executive Business Adviser. So, this year when planning my vacation to the U.S., I decided to make a stop in Houston. I wanted to see firsthand what they do and also participate in “Selling Night” where PEP participants gain valuable experience pitching and crafting their business plans.

Then, all of the sudden last night I began to think, “What the heck am I doing?” In Houston, going to a prison? And I was a little bit nervous.

The event today was amazing. I have rarely been so welcomed into a community of people eager to meet me and have what we refer to in the Dominican as anintercambio – the meeting of two or more people on level ground to learn from and serve each other.

The men in the PEP are near release and have undergone an intensive interview process to be able to participate in a challenging-MBA like program. I had read the literature, but still was not prepared for how well spoken, genuine, and eager to work hard they would be.

The biggest take away for me today was: we are all the same. As the men pitched to me they were nervous. As I got ready this morning I was nervous. They have made some mistakes and the good Lord knows just how many of those I have made too. I saw myself in them. I have been given many second chances and good gifts I did not deserve. I want to be a facilitator of those same things to them too.

Several Executive Volunteers stood up and addressed the men and told them they came to this event and to serve them because the men are worthy. So true.

Magnetic PEP: It will grab you!

Strange as it may seem…this is true…

I worked for a publically traded software company managing their sales internationally here in the USA. A client from New Zealand was visiting the company here in Texas for a demonstration of the system. Prior to his arrival, I requested a list of Texas highlights he wished to visit. Being a foreigner myself: I assumed he would want to visit the local tourist landmarks: of which there are more than just NASA.

Nope – the list arrived on email one morning and he had requested I set up a meeting with a non-profit called PEP. OK…Where to go from here? I Googled it – asked around and soon to find out it – was located not far from the office. I could swallow this as a client treat –with no expectations on my side.

Three weeks later – I found myself sitting in the boardroom of the PEP office in Houston listening to a very passionate employee describe the vision, objectives and reason for the existence of PEP.
Hours later – I found myself thanking my client for the surest gift I could ever receive and be infinitely grateful for…

I had spent 14 years in South Africa – with little success visiting prisoners with no families. I spent a further 2.5 years visiting foreigners in prison detained in Thailand awaiting the King’s pardon for their release with very little success. Embassies around the globe fighting hard to retain their citizens and return them home, with very little influence – was my constant expose to failure.

The gift of my client introduced me to: PEP – who are way stronger than any embassy I had worked with .Through their unconditional efforts to empower the PEP inmates to own their own future’s and deliver themselves to freedom – PEP lives and breeds statistical success. Visiting the Cleveland Unit, experiencing the success and the pure interaction with the folk is an honor and fulfills my need to understand prosperity in its simplest form.