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I have seen many things in my life as a public speaker, but my first visit to the State of Nebraska Women’s Prison in York in 2017 took me by surprise.

I was searched, passed through the metal detector and soon heard the "clank" of the locked door shut behind me, separating me between the prison and the free world. The next door opened, and I stepped into the land of the incarcerated.

I introduced myself to as many of the 120 women as I could. Among them, I met an engaging and well-spoken young woman who had gone to high school with my oldest son. I shook her hand, looked into her bright blue eyes and listened to her tell me that she would be in prison for a long time.

Up to this point, I hadn’t had a personal experience with an inmate, and my "eye for an eye" attitude had been very harsh. My belief was that these people committed a heinous crime and that they needed to suffer the consequences. Upon meeting these women, I wasn’t so sure I was right.

Later that day, I spoke to my daughter’s sorority at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Once again, I had a captive audience of beautiful young women. What was the difference in the two audiences that day?

Was it age? Was it makeup? Was it family? Was it location?

When I wrestled through this, I realized that it was simple. It boiled down to one or two decisions.

The decisions were associated with the use or abuse of drugs and alcohol. Just think: If one of the sorority girls were to drink just one more beer at a party, then get into her car to drive home and hit someone on her way home and takes a life, she would be on the inside of the four walls of prison for many years to come.

In another speaking engagement at a different Nebraska state prison facility, I met a GQ-model-type-of-handsome African-American man who came into the system at the age of 16 and was turning 40 the following week. He might have a chance to be paroled in the next year or two. He came to a saving belief of Jesus Christ two years ago and found freedom in that relationship with Christ while still in prison.

My thoughts went immediately to the day that he is paroled out of the system. When he walks outside of that facility, who will pick him up? How much money will be in his pocket? Where will he sleep his first night? How does he get a job? Does he have any idea how to operate a computer or cellphone? Are his parents still around? Would he have any friends that he still knows after being in prison for the last 25 years?

I have so many questions, and I don’t have any of the answers.

Another young man I met was tall, lean and Caucasian. He was bright-eyed and had a smile on his face. He was articulate, happy, engaging and looked like a great, ordinary guy next door.

The first drug he ever took played tricks on his mind, and he ended the life of his friend who supplied the drug. One decision changed his life forever.

If I were the father of the young man who was killed, I would want justice. If I were the offender’s father, I would know that he doesn’t need to be defined by the worst moment in his life.

In addition to inmates, I have had the privilege to meet with many heroes within the leadership of the correctional facilities. They work hard and truly care about the people they serve in the system.

Their coaching helped me to simplify my thinking. This is when things became more real and I became less overwhelmed. The answer for me was to simply assist one person coming out of the system in the next 12 months. It was that simple for me.

This is a very complex issue in our society -- and everyone has a different passion to serve -- but if we all set a New Year’s goal of simply helping one person in 2018, we could improve our community, our state and our country.

Will you commit to helping someone this year? Maybe it would be a single mom, a mentally or physically challenged person, a troubled youth, an incarcerated individual, a struggling veteran or an aging neighbor.

As I continue to simplify my thoughts, there are 1.9 million people in Nebraska. If only one out of 100 of us reached out to one person in 2018, we will have served 19,000 people.

What are you wrestling with today? What action steps will you be taking? Let’s simplify the struggle and focus on one individual. Each one serves one.

Ron "Gus" Gustafson is a motivational speaker who advocates "turning setbacks into comebacks" across the country.


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