Shortly before Sy Newson Green’s sophomore year in high school, a family health crisis ate up the money that would have paid his tuition at the private Catholic school he’d been attending for a year.
His father needed a heart transplant, his mother lost vision when a softball hit her eye — and both parents lost their jobs. Sy was thriving and happy at the all-boys Palma School, in Salinas, Calif., and the school could provide some scholarship help, but not enough to cover the $12,900 annual tuition.
That’s wen an unlikely group of people stepped up with the remainder of the tuition: inmates at the nearby Correctional Training Facility, also known as Soledad State Prison.
Inmates pooled the money they earned bit by bit from doing prison jobs such as cleaning and clerking. They raised a total of $32,000 over about three years — a remarkable feat considering prisoners in California earn a base wage of 8 cents an hour for many of their daily jobs, such as mopping the floors.
“I broke down and started crying because I knew where it was coming from,” said Sy’s father, Frank Green, about the donation. Green, 49, had recently lost his job with a limo company.
The inmates started gathering their money in fall 2016, and they collected enough to cover most of Sy’s high school tuition starting with his sophomore year in 2017. They raised $24,000 from their own pockets and also received an $8,000 donation from outside the prison. The project was first reported by CNN.
Sy, who is now 19 and graduated from Palma School in 2020, attends the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, where he plays for the basketball team.
“It definitely was a surprise and a huge honor,” he said of the inmates’ donation to him. “That’s not something that happens every day.”
The idea for the scholarship was hatched in a prison-school book group called Exercises in Empathy, a Palma School program now in its seventh year. Before the pandemic, juniors and seniors, teachers, and some community members would take regular trips to the prison to read and discuss books with inmates working on self-improvement.The program was started by Jim Micheletti, English and theology teacher and director of campus ministry at Palma, who said both the students and inmates found the book discussions deeply meaningful. The boys and the inmates would often become close in sharing ideas and feelings, he said. But never did he imagine the inmates would come together to support a student in this way.
“Oh gosh, I was in disbelief. I couldn’t believe it,” Micheletti said. “I thought, wow, I’m living in a dream here with this.”
Former inmate Jason Bryant, one of the leaders of the scholarship fundraising, said that of the approximately 2,000 inmates in his unit, about 1 in 3 agreed to donate twice a year. Some donations were as small as $1 and a few as big as $100, with most donations in amounts of $5 or $10, Bryant said.