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27 graduate from faith-based programs at Omaha Correctional Center, Tecumseh jail

Alpha celebrates first graduations within NDCS (Photo: NDCS)

In the past week, a total of 27 students graduated from Alpha programs in classes at both the Omaha Correctional Center (OCC) and the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution (TSCI).

Alpha is a series of sessions designed to explore the Christian faith.

Run worldwide, it is not specifically a prison program.

Alpha network director Jodi Meyer said while the program is centered around Christianity, it does not exclude those of other faiths.

She explained it as an informal and comfortable environment for people to discuss the big questions of life.

“Anyone from any background is welcome,” Meyer said. “We present the basics of the Christian faith in a way that people can explore these things themselves.”

Thirteen participants graduated from the program at TSCI on June 21 and 14 graduated from OCC’s program on June 27. In addition to congratulating graduates, members also welcomed a new class into the program at each facility. Graduates offered words of encouragement after receiving their certificates.

“My whole life, people told me I had a spiritual calling,” graduate Antonio McNichols said. “Alpha educates you on what you don’t already know about religion.”

Some incarcerated men, like Joshua Vanackeren, said they didn’t know who God was before going into prison.

He was baptized at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center (DEC) in 2014 and now says God is behind him every step of the way.

He wants to make positive changes for himself, his daughter and his community.

“I know that he is always going to be there for me no matter what,” Vanackeren said. “I forgive myself, God forgave me and I think my family forgave me too.”

Many graduates said the 15-week class changed their cynical perspective to one of hope.

Graduates at OCC told new members how the program got them through tough times like the death of a mother-in-law, bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts. It broke down barriers, created friendships and formed turning points in people’s lives.

“One thing the Alpha program showed me that I didn’t know was that different faiths can come together to help us find faith, religion and tranquility,” graduate Decabooter Williams said.

Alpha has a partnership with Prison Fellowship, so anywhere there is Prison Fellowship, Alpha will be too. The Nebraska State Penitentiary (NSP) and the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women (NCCW) are next on Alpha’s radar.

“Our goal here and everywhere is to help people find meaning and purpose,” Meyer said.

Some graduates, like Rodney Mason, have not only found God with Alpha. They’ve also found a church – a community that cares for them.

“It’s about family,” Mason said. “It’s really about trying to share the love and it really can change your life if you allow it to.”

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