Where did the name “Stephen’s Table” come from?
The name comes from Acts 6:1-7 in the Bible where Stephen was chosen among the first deacons of the early Christian community to “wait on tables” while the Twelve attended to “prayer and ministry of the word.” In the same way, our volunteers have been called into service on behalf of the broader Chattanooga community — so that the needs of those who have been marginalized are not forgotten.
What is the purpose?
The purpose is to preserve the social bonds between prisoners and their hometown — which is known to improve the transition from prison to society.
Who do you serve?
Anyone from Hamilton County who is currently serving time in a state or federal prison. We send them all postcards as soon as we are informed of their sentence and invite them to participate in Stephen’s Table. To be eligible they must be:
- Incarcerated in a state or federal prison on a felony conviction
- From Hamilton County and planning to return to Hamilton County if released
- At least 24 months before he or she is released
- And willing to actively participate in Stephen’s Table
Why do you need volunteers?
For two reason: (1) Because they are uninfluenced by a paycheck, community volunteers are often viewed by prisoners as more legitimate representatives of their hometown than an organization’s paid personnel, and (2) given the number of people from Hamilton County who are presently incarcerated (c. 1,000), it would be impracticable for a few hired hands to develop individual relationships with them all.
What do you need me to do?
Mostly write letters.
How many people will I be expected to write?
No more than two — unless you have the time and really want to. We would rather you spend more time on fewer people than less time on more.
The research we are following demonstrates that one visit a month during the last 12 months in prison improves the rate people stay out of prison by 30% — and that two letters have the same effect as one visit. Therefore, the goal is get two pieces of mail to each person you are writing every month.
For how long?
Twelve months. However, you can volunteer as long as you want. We’ll invite you to renew your commitment every year in order to manage expectation.
Can I visit the person I’m writing?
Not as a Stephen’s Table volunteer. If you would like to visit the person you’re writing, you must complete an additional training and certification program for visitation.
Does it cost anything?
Not necessarily. We discourage spending money on the person you’re writing — except to contribute to holiday programs sponsored by the institution, purchase magazine or newspaper subscriptions if possible, or donate to Chattanooga Endeavors to offset the costs of managing your letter exchange ($10 a moth per match). The main cost associated with volunteering for Stephen’s Table is your time. Whether you spend any money is up to you.
What are my responsibilities after they get out?
None. You’re responsibilities are transferred to Chattanooga Endeavors during the three months prior to their release. If you would like to reengage with them you must complete an additional training and certification program for mentors.
Will the person I’m writing know where I live?
No. All letters from prisoners are sent to a PO Box which Chattanooga Endeavors manages. We actually require this and prohibit volunteers from using any other address.
How about my name?
Just your first name. Volunteers write on behalf of Stephen’s Table and attempt to form a bond between the person they’re writing and the group not themselves.
What about personal information?
All they will know about you is what you tell them. We encourage minimal self-disclosure — only when it is pertinent to an exchange and never in a way that reveals personal identity.
Doesn’t this extra caution make it hard to build a relationship?
Not at all. Whereas self-disclosure can help build rapport, you will get further by being dependable, truthful, and non-judgmental.
Do you screen people before matching them with volunteers?
Yes. We screen for risk and match those with higher risk to an internal committee of seasoned volunteers with staff support.
Do you accept sex offenders?
Yes. However, they are matched with the same high risk committee.
What about murderers?
We do. In fact, many people with murder convictions are actually very low risk. This is because they tend to be older, have served much more time in prison, and have fewer prior convictions. Nevertheless, we encourage you to decline writing someone who you are uncomfortable with. As a Stephen’s Table volunteer, you have the right to discontinue writing anyone at any time for any reason.
How about someone with a life or death sentence?
Absolutely. We believe that we have a special calling to reach out to people who may never come home. If you would like to write someone with a life or death sentence, please let us know.
Can I email the person I’m writing?
Sort of. We send letters to you by email and you reply to the letters by email. However, the email comes to us. We print your letter and drop it in the mail to the institution with a postage-paid return envelop. This creates an additional layer of anonymity for you and makes the exchange extremely efficient — even when you’re out of town.
Can I try it out without making a year-long commitment?
Yes. You can attend a monthly letter writing group where you can write someone on our waiting list without being matched to him or her. Come just once — or every month. It’s up to you. And there is no commitment. You’ll learn about our mission, get a taste for how we do our work, and meet some people who share your concern for prisoners.
Where can I find out more?
How do I get started?
If you would like to get started, please complete our online volunteer registration.