Helping Inmates One at a Time

Helping Inmates One at a Time

Charles Wight, 74, has spent several decades mentoring inmates to combat recidivism.

When the members of United Christian Parish go looking for a volunteer, they often ask Charles Wight.

“Everybody turns to Charlie,” said Marilyn Silvey. “Within our church, he has long been a person to call on for projects.”

One of those efforts turned out to be working to mentor inmates in jail.

“A friend at church called my attention to it, and I thought it was a good idea, so I got involved,” said Wight, a Reston resident. That was nearly 30 years ago.

Since the 1970s, off and on, Wight, 74, has volunteered as a mentor to inmates incarcerated in Fairfax County’s Adult Detention Center.

Through a program organized by O.A.R. (Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources), Wight, a retired software engineer, has tried to combat recidivism. “The main point is helping them to figure out how to stay out once they are released,” said Wight, who mentors at the jail once a week.

“HE HAS BEEN an incredible volunteer for us,” said Brandon Cosby, education and training director, O.A.R. “He is supportive, but also pushes them a little to think and consider their choices. He balances support and accountability, and I think clients recognize that in him and appreciate it.”

Cosby explained that O.A.R. volunteers have several days of training before they begin mentoring and that the work is not easy.

“We lose a lot of volunteers who get frustrated with the minutia of working at a jail,” said Cosby, acknowledging the difficult work environment. “But Charlie takes it in stride,”

Despite the difficulties, Wight is able to build relationships with the inmates, said Cosby. O.A.R., which has a staff of about 20, relies on a core group of about 100 volunteers. “They’re absolutely critical,” said Cosby. “All we do to assist inmates, volunteers are a part of.”

Earlier this year, Wight’s contributions to the community were recognized when Volunteer Fairfax nominated him for a Direct Service in Human Services Award. While he did not receive the award, being nominated is considered a great honor.

OVER THE YEARS, Wight estimates that he’s mentored about 50 inmates. “We work with them one at a time,” he said. “Most of these guys are people like you and me who made some mistakes.”

Wight said his first client was his most memorable. He mentored the inmate who was transferred to several regional jails.

“He used to tell me his ambition was to stay out of jail long enough to see the seasons change,” said Wight. When the inmate was finally released, he battled drug and alcohol addictions, according to Wight, who remembers taking him to detox a few times.

Now, the person has been sober for 15 years and is a manager at a hardware store, said Wight.

Wight, born and raised in New York City, graduated from Yale in 1953. That spring, he enlisted in the Navy. “The Korean War ended two months after I enlisted,” said Wight.

In 1957, he received his master’s degree from Columbia University in education and math, before starting a 15-year career in teaching and school administration. He was a headmaster at “an earlier version of the Flint Hill School,” a school in Vienna called Green Hedges, and a teacher at St. Albans.

“Then I wound up in the restaurant business,” said Wight. He worked as a cook at the Fairfax Wagon Wheel before starting his own restaurant, the Dory Seafood Restaurant in McLean, in 1973.

WHEN THE RESTAURANT went out of business three and a half years later, Wight transitioned to a career in software engineering. He retired in 2000, but has continued to be an active member of the community.

He volunteers for Rebuilding Together. He participates each year in Works Sunday, working on the Gabriel Homes project, helping with home improvement and maintenance, said Silvey. “He’s just a great guy to have in the community.”

For a charity silent auction organized by his church, Wight listed several hours of his handyman services. Each year, Wight’s wife of 18 years, Cornelia, jokes that she’s going to bid on the service, said Silvey.