Retired Baker teacher inspires Miss. prisoners _lowres

Photo provided by Roscoe Barnes -- Wilkinson County Correctional Facility recently recognized book club volunteers for 14 years of service. Seated from left, are Higher Learning Book Club leaders Nell Stuard and Thomas McNeely Jr.; and standing, some of the book club's participants, Ricky Scales, Antonio Phares Pickens, Steven Farris and Damon Hipps.

Nell Stuard, a retired English teacher from Baker, spends two days a month in a Mississippi prison hoping to make a difference in the lives of the men behind bars.

Stuard is a volunteer who serves as co-leader of a book club for the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility in Woodville, Mississippi. She began her service with the club in 2014.

Known as the Higher Learning Book Club, the reading program is associated with the Great Books Foundation of Chicago, which provides the books and other support for the club.

The club reads and discusses literature from ancient Greece to present day and from all countries; current curriculum includes fiction, nonfiction, plays and poetry, Stuard said.

“As a middle school English teacher, the thinking of my students was best stimulated through books and literature,” Stuard said. “This book club offers the same opportunity to our members who ably share their insights about the selections. I have enjoyed being a part of these 90-minute sessions and look forward to continuing.”

Stuard is joined by Thomas McNeely Jr., an attorney from Natchez, Mississippi, who has been leading the book club for 14 years.

“The purpose of this club is to achieve ‘shared inquiry’ at each meeting,” explained McNeely. “To do this, members (inmates) are obligated to read each short selection, ideally twice, before coming to a meeting so that they will be able to discuss the selection with others.”

Wilkinson Correctional recently honored the two volunteers for their years of service.

Tira Jackson, deputy warden of programs, presented Stuard and McKneely with a special recognition plaque and certificates of appreciation on behalf of Warden Frank Shaw and the correctional facility.

“Ms. Stuard and Mr. McNeely are dedicated to this program, as can be seen by their years of service,” said Jackson.

“Their efforts are making a difference in the lives of the offenders. As volunteers, they are opening minds, giving insight, presenting challenges, and introducing the offenders to many of the important names in history.”

The book club started in 1999 with only four members. It’s now in its 15th year and has membership that ranges from 10 to 20 inmates who meet on the first and third Wednesday of the month.

McNeely said each meeting is an “experience of joining with other club members in opening our minds to the wide variety within man, nature, society and spirit shown in literature.”

In 2004, McNeely joined Red Dawn Press of Natchez to publish a collection of writings by the offenders in the book, “Beyond the Bars: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose from a Mississippi Prison.”