On a Monday evening inside a small room off a corridor at the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, music was being made. The door was closed but the sound spilled out into the hallway just the same.
Steve Foster, a 61-year old volunteer and member of the Heritage Church in Rock Island, was jamming with the band.
The band includes not only volunteers like him, but  a half a dozen talented offenders who routinely perform at the facility’s worship services and other special events.
How Foster came to volunteer isn’t much of a story.  Prison officials approached the Heritage Church and asked if they would be interested in acting as worship leaders. When Foster was approached by church officials, he agreed. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he admits.
That offer was made about three years ago, and Foster shows no signs of regretting his service.  In fact, just the opposite. His recent retirement from Alcoa Manufacturing in January has freed up even more of his time to give to his work, and for that he is grateful.
He estimates he spends about four hours a week in prep time with the band learning new songs and practicing the old ones. “It’s been the greatest experience in the world,” he said. “These are my friends. Who doesn’t want to hang out with their friends?”
And Foster does consider each of them friends. “I don’t consider them inmates,” he said. “These are my Christian brothers.”
Far from guiding and tending to them, Foster believes the opposite is true. “I’ve been ministered to more than I have ministered. When I do have a chance to lead worship, I let them lead worship with me,” he said.
Rev. Shawn Cossin agrees with that sentiment. He also feels he gets back more from the men at the Kewanee center than he gives to them.
Cossin is the pastor of Heritage Church in Rock Island. On any given weekend, over 2000 congregants  may gather to worship there. It’s a big flock, but Cossin said the men at the Kewanee Life Skills center are simply an extension of that congregation.
Cossin’s background is diverse. An officer in the US Army, he later worked as a state trooper before stepping into the role of pastor.
His goal now, along with the goal of his fellow volunteers, is to prepare the men to exit well and thrive in life. His hope is that, “the men can experience flourishing now,” but also when they leave the center. The spiritual and fellowship components of their work,  he hopes, will reduce recidivism.
With that goal in mind, Cossin oversees weekly worship services at the center that usually attracts anywhere from 40 to 100 offenders, with an average attendance of 50.
His volunteer work at the Kewanee center comes with its own rewards. “I truly believe that it is more blessed to give than to receive. There’s a great joy in providing encouragement and comfort,” he said.
For 12 years, another volunteer has administered to the youth offenders at the Illinois Youth Center in Kewanee. Mike Wexell, 62, Galva, said he had a passion for working with the kids at the youth prison. But once the prison closed, he found a different path with the offenders at the new facility.
Wexell teaches a Bible study class at the Kewanee facility a few times a week. Like other volunteers, Wexell said he has been in a dark place before. “There but for the grace of God go I,” he said.  Of the troubles and trials that got many of the offenders put behind bars in the first place, Wexell said he knows them well. “There’s no pretending. They got caught,” he said. “I didn’t.”
Wexell said his wife of 16 years, Chris, first got him interested in volunteering at the prison. Chris Wexell had also volunteered at the youth prison intermittently over the years. She’s only now thinking of sticking her toe back in at the Kewanee center and has started the extensive background check process.
Mike Wexell is a favorite of many of the offenders and his wife thinks it’s because of the bond he has created. “He established trust with them,” she said, adding that the volunteer work grounds him and keeps him humble.
Murphy Falgout, 48, New Orleans, transferred into the  facility almost two years ago and is a big fan of Wexell. He agrees with Chris Wexell’s characterization of her husband. “He’s the most humble man I’ve ever met in my life.” Falgout said. He also said the staff at the center are great, but the volunteers go above and beyond and are always there to lend a hand. “They see you as human beings and not a DOC number.”
Jesse, 29, of Rockford, who prefers not to go by his full name, is an offender and a band member at the center and has only been at the facility for six months. But volunteers like Mike Wexell and Craig, from Alcoholics Anonymous, are counted as some of his favorite people. “They treat me like family that they haven’t seen in a while. They lift me up,” he said.
Justin, (J.T.), 39, of Mattoon, who also would prefer his last name not be published, has been at the center for 18 months. Foster was one of the first volunteers he met and said Foster embraced him completely. Justin is also new to the worship band and was warmly welcomed. Volunteering for the band, he said, has been good for him. “When I volunteer my time, it gives me a sense of purpose.”
Another offender, Richard Pizzello, 42, of Chicago, said he looks forward to Monday nights and worship services. “It’s like being fed,” he said. He not only gets encouragement from the volunteers but he also can relate to them. “I think a lot of these guys when they tell their story, they were broken. That shows they understand,” said Pizzello. “I think they’re healed and they want to share it with you.”
Chris Wexell said she believes her husband’s hope for the men at the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center is simple. “He wants to give them enough cement in their boots that they can stand against adversity and stand strong,” she said. “Then they can take that forward and take it to the streets.”