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St. Kate’s student makes a difference for inmates and at-risk youth

From left: Dakota County Sherriff’s Office Outreach Coordinator Emily Clary, Amber Horn ’13 and Kelsey Demmert Knops ’10, an Americorp Vista volunteer.
From left: Dakota County Sherriff’s Office Outreach Coordinator Emily Clary, Amber Horn ’13 and Kelsey Demmert Knops ’10, an Americorp Vista volunteer.
Photo courtesy of Amber Horn.

When Amber Horn ’13 first told her father that she had an opportunity to work with inmates at the Dakota County jail as part of her “Psychology Engages the World” seminar course at St. Catherine University, he was not happy.

“He didn’t speak to me for a week,” says Horn. Her father Stanley, a retired military police officer who had spent 30 years on the job, was adamant she choose a different service-learning opportunity because he feared for her safety. He suggested she help at-risk children express themselves through art or dance instead.

“My goal is to pursue a career in forensic psychology," says Horn, "so there was no way I was going to pass up this amazing opportunity to work with an inmate population and learn more about the criminal justice system.”

Despite his initial hesitation, Horn the elder finally came around once his daughter explained exactly what she would be doing at the jail — helping a specific group of prescreened inmates in the Inmates Motivated to Change (IMC) program draft their resumes for when they are released from jail. The extensive up-front training provided by Dakota County and the many safety precautions in place also helped put Horn’s father at ease about the experience.

Throughout the semester-long service-learning internship, Horn easily surpassed the 25-hour requisite, spending three to four hours each week at the jail working one-on-one with inmates ranging from 19 to 75 years old. Kelsey Demmert Knops ’10, an Americorp Vista volunteer for Dakota County, designed and formalized the service learning program with St. Kate's.

“The experience was a little nerve wracking at first,” says Horn, who worked with a wide range of offenders, from drug dealers to sexual offenders. “But at the end of the day, it’s so rewarding when an inmate realizes that somebody does care about them and wants to help them.”

Although Horn enjoyed her work with IMC inmates, she knew she could do more. “I wanted to really challenge myself,” she explains. “When the site supervisor mentioned that I could help in writing a grant, I jumped.” 

In 2010, the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office was awarded funding from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC) for Art Behind Bars, a project led by artist Barry Kleider that encouraged the inmates to reflect on their lives through graphic novels. “The original project was a huge success and we wanted to build on what we’d done in the past,” says Horn’s site supervisor, Emily Clary, an outreach coordinator for the sheriff’s office. “Amber was excited to help so I handed her the grant application and told her to run with it.”

And run she did.

Horn attended a grant-writing seminar at the MRAC, recruited art instructors for an expanded project she created called Choices, and volunteered her time to write the grant — something she had never done before. Horn even led a focus group of 42 inmates to gather their feedback about the type of art they were most interested in.

In spring of 2012, Dakota County received word that they had been awarded the grant.

“I was shocked and thrilled,” Horn says. The Choices project will allow 12 inmates to develop skills in the visual arts, and to create a graphic novel to share their stories and give advice to youth at-risk of incarceration. Horn, who continued to volunteer at the jail long after her class internship was over, will take the inmates completed artwork to youth centers in the Dakota County area.

“We want to use the experiences and artistic reflections of the inmates as a deterrent for youth who are at risk of becoming future offenders,” says Horn, who will also lead the presentations at the centers.

“Amber really embraced the opportunity,” says Professor Jamie Peterson. “Psychology Engages the World” is the first of two seminars required for the psychology major. Peterson incorporated service learning into her section so students could apply what they were learning in the classroom to real-world work environment. “I’m so impressed with how she dug into the experience and really challenged herself to go above and beyond.”

Horn is grateful for the service-learning component in Peterson’s course. She did learn more about the criminal justice system — as she had hoped — and is now on her way to fulfilling her father’s wish that she work with at-risk youth and art.

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Aug. 29, 2012 by Colby Johnson

See also: Arts, Liberal Arts, Social Justice, Students