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Robin Vander Wall: A life not destroyed

Reprinted with permission from LifeTimes Magazine, Fall, 2018

By Brian Davidson . . . Robin had a choice to make. He could let his past dictate his future, or he could decide to use his past experiences to make a difference in the lives of other people. He chose the latter.

Like many others, Robin lost everything after his conviction. After years of schooling, he was finally going to get his law license.

“Two days before I got locked up I had paid a six hundred dollar fee to sit for the bar. That was already sent in the mail. I was going to graduate in May with two degrees. I was going to graduate with a degree in law and a master’s in political management.”

In addition to his schooling, Robin had been very active in politics, managing campaigns and working with a variety of politicians. All of that came to a crashing halt and he spent over six years in prison.

After serving his time, he knew he had to make a decision about his future. “When I got out of prison, I immediately knew I’ve got to do something. I had to get involved, itching to invest what I could,” Robin told me. “I have skill and I have talent and I have capability and not everybody does and so I think I have a responsibility to do what I can to help others.”

One of the first organizations he became involved with was an organization called National Association for Rational Sexual Offense Laws, or NARSOL for short. He became the editor in chief for a project known as Minute Men. He was able to draw on all the skills he learned in law school, and all the experience he’d gained in politics, and was soon a prominent leader in the organization.

“Back then we would meet once every Saturday in the morning and map out strategy for the following week. Those were the days. I was very involved and that’s what led to other options and opportunities within NARSOL.”

Today, Robin is the vice chair of NARSOL and the founder and president of Vivante Espero, the foundation that supports it.

This year, Robin was offered a fellowship with Just Leadership USA, a non—profit organization that is dedicated to cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030. One of the ways they do this is by training people who were formally incarcerated to be leaders in the movement. As part of the fellowship, he will participate in a total of four face-to—face meetings in New York where he will receive training in basic leadership skills. In addition to the meetings in New York, all fellowship recipients participate in monthly webinars.

“It’s really about learning to be a better listener, learning to be a better communicator, learning essentially how to make others leaders. The concept is empowerment.”

I asked Robin if the others in the program know that he is on a public registry. He told me that they all know. “As I normally am accustomed to doing, I’ve taken a very open approach. They all know. I think I’m the token. But I don’t think I’m there because I’m the token.”

Robin says that he takes being the token very seriously. He understands that he is being watched, both by people within the organization and by others in his advocacy work. He knows he is representing an entire group of people who regularly find themselves being scorned and excluded. “Absolutely positively I feel that. If I don’t do anything else at all in my experience with JLUSA, I will feel good about my role and my involvement there having taken the training and used it to the best of my ability and to not have done anything to reflect badly on JLUSA or on NARSOL or the movement in its entirety. Yes, absolutely.”

Like most people on a public registry, Robin struggles a little when it comes to dealing with questions about his past. Even when he’s being interviewed by the media about his successes, he still senses a certain level of judgement. “I do feel that, and I don’t know if there’s anything you can do about that. The only thing you can do is to feel good enough about yourself that you can live with it understanding that yes, that means you’re a little bit damaged. You’re not fully social, you’re not able to be a full social creature. But so what? Trump can’t be a fully social creature either and he’s the freaking president, right? So, I don’t worry about it too much.”

Although he sometimes thinks about what might have been, how life would be different if he’d gone on to be a lawyer, he makes a choice not to dwell on the past.

“I’m not a negative person by nature. I don’t know that it’s a matter of finding happiness as opposed to experiencing it where it exists. I don’t spend time during the day anymore thinking about my lost degree or thinking about my lost opportunities or thinking about what might have been because there’s no use in it. It’s not helpful, it’s not going to change anything, and if I get too preoccupied by it I will inevitably want to pull somebody else into it.”

Robin is excited about his opportunities to use the skills and talents he’s developed over the years to make a real difference in people’s lives. It’s been almost ten years since he was released from prison. In that time, he has found happiness through his work with NARSOL, Vivante Espero, and Just Leadership USA.

“I’m content and I’m happy. Could I be happier? I don’t know. Honestly, I’m not sure I could be any happier and I don’t want to think about it like that because that opens that door. When I start contemplating, ‘Could I be happier?’ then I start thinking about what things could make me happier. Then I might think, ‘Well, if I was a lawyer right now…’ See? There I go, walking down that road.”

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This topic contains 28 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Connie Limerick 2 weeks, 5 days ago.

  • Author
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  • #48073 Reply

    Just Jim

    Meet the life that WAS destroyed. I’ve been out for over eight years now. I go nowhere, I have no friends and I’m not looking for any. I keep to myself and don’t bother anyone, but once in awhile someone will yell something at me when I drive by. One time, a guy punched my car because he was drunk and I was a sex offender. I live in a small town where everybody knows all your business anyway. I had to live here because when I got out, it was the only area that complied with residency restrictions. I don’t even eat at the one cafe in town because on two occasions, one of the local drunks decided to create a scene because I was there (the “regular” people here are very territorial). The second time happened right after I finally got up the courage after several years, to go back and try again. I stay home and talk to no one. I avoid community functions because I know I’ll never be accepted as part of the community. I’m being treated for chronic depression and anxiety. I’m getting old, and just waiting to die. I don’t fear death as much as I used to. I actually envy the dead. When I die, there isn’t one person I know who would even carry my casket. I’m bitter and angry, because my life has been taken from me.

    • #48119 Reply

      d

      Hang in there Jim things can change in a second for you. Maybe think about moving to an area where you are not the one and only guy that is a RSO. Safety in numbers and not the focus of all the attention would help you allot by the sound of it. There are a million people in this country by now that are members of this unhappy club. If you give up and quit the fight they win do it for spite like me.

  • #48074 Reply

    Chris Schneider

    Keep up the good fight my friend, I am still fighting to get back into the prison system to help men and let them know prison is not the end of life. Thank you for your good works, let me know if I can be of any help.

    • #48165 Reply
      Robin Vander Wall
      Robin Vander Wall
      Admin

      Thank you, brother! You have a story to share and I hope that you can successfully witness to the folks who are still inside. What’s the hang up? Are they denying you the opportunity to go into the prisons?

  • #48075 Reply

    Don Campbell

    Note: Robin, you could still become a lawyer. Hugo Mack from Ypsilanti, Michigan was a lawyer before his conviction in 1995 and fought all the way to the state supreme court to get his law license back.

    • #48166 Reply
      Robin Vander Wall
      Robin Vander Wall
      Admin

      Thank you, Don. It is much easier to have one’s license restored. My problem is that I never finished. So the “84 month rule” (which is an arcane stipulation of the ABA that perpetuates the tuition thievery of American law schools) is the biggest impediment to my completion of law school.

  • #48081 Reply

    WearethePeople

    Robin I for one am glad you are a part of NARSOL. Having someone like you as a part of this group pulls everyone of us to the top! Thanks you for standing up to this injustice.

    • #48167 Reply
      Robin Vander Wall
      Robin Vander Wall
      Admin

      Glad to be here. And thanks! I appreciate your encouragement.

  • #48082 Reply

    Tammie Lawson

    Robin I take pride in getting to meet you. Your dedication and hard work will pay off in the long run. We need more people like you who is willing to help and take a stand even tho some of us have errors in our past your a walking example of how life can be as normal as possible. I know you will P.U.S.H. push until something happens. You would have been one hell of an attorney and in heart you still are.

    • #48168 Reply
      Robin Vander Wall
      Robin Vander Wall
      Admin

      It was my privilege to have met you, Tammie. You have a remarkable story and one that is so compelling that I wish we could figure out a way to keynote it. I appreciate your willingness to embrace this advocacy and join in this work. I feel like you are in a unique position to help us bring an end to this nonsense. Thank you for your commitment to this cause. And thank you for your kind words.

  • #48083 Reply

    Mike Hall

    Like our victims, some of us are just survivors, while others on each side become thrivers. Robin is a thriver and it shows in all he does at NARSOL and NCRSOL. Thanks Robin, for all you do. I’m proud to call you a friend.

    • #48169 Reply
      Robin Vander Wall
      Robin Vander Wall
      Admin

      Thanks, Mike! You’re an inspiration to me. I really admire your humility and steadfastness. I appreciate all that you do to help us continue in this fight.

  • #48084 Reply

    Ed

    Robin,

    Thanks for being 1 in 1000 who are not only capable, not only skilled, but have the daily focus and drive – both mandatory constants – to drive this fight for the rest of the population.

    • #48170 Reply
      Robin Vander Wall
      Robin Vander Wall
      Admin

      Thanks, Ed!

  • #48086 Reply

    T Anderson

    Well done Robin. Be encouraged and keep up the good work!

  • #48092 Reply

    Greg K

    Very nice to see a success story -Nice Job!

  • #48097 Reply

    Sona Nast

    Great article Robin and congratulations on this fellowship. I appreciate your thoughts on being happy in your life as it is without dwelling on what might have been.

    • #48171 Reply
      Robin Vander Wall
      Robin Vander Wall
      Admin

      Thank you, Sona. It seems to me that it’s a very important thing to communicate to others who are directly impacted by the registry. I know that it’s hard for a lot of people to find the joy in any of the struggles they face. And I don’t want to make it seem to easy, because it isn’t always so easy. But, like so many things, it’s really about what’s in your head. And, no matter how bad things might be, most of us (unless there are other serious issues) still have control over what we allow our minds to ponder. We can dismiss the negative and find the positive. It’s up to us. I remember something I read in prison that was written by St. Augustine. “We are nothing but wills before God.” That’s how he put it. And it struck me. It’s profound. And I think it’s the truth.

  • #48102 Reply

    Congrats

    Congrats on the work with the advocacy groups. The only jobs I have held since a 20 year old misdemeanor dismissed 1203.4 California, is companies that hire illegal aliens as there work force. Advocating for a tiered registry has put me as a level 3 for this “dismissed” charge in Missouri. This is the only charge of this type I have ever had. There are only about 600 level 1 designated offenders classified in the entire state, and as such can apply to get off the registry,after 10 years, though I would like to know of a single case of anyone ever being granted such relief. Because I know of not 1. This advocacy for these tiered registry’s has made things worse and not better, so I do question what the real purpose behind such advocacy groups are.

  • #48106 Reply

    Ed

    I found your comment about being a “token” very interesting. I assume by that you are the token former sex offender (SO), and not merely a token felon. It sounds like you have a wonderful opportunity to educate the staff at Just Leadership USA. I’d bet that most of them are not aware of SO recidivism statistics, the diversity of SO offenses and offenders, or the adverse effects of the registry on society.

    As drug offenders were after the 1970’s Rockefeller drug laws, SO’s are today’s “target of opportunity” for fear mongering politicians, ambitious prosecutors and an uneducated public. How did that drug hysteria work out for us? We ended up with draconian crack and marijuana laws, that contributed mightily to the over-incarceration problem we see today.

    Those at Just Leadership USA need to understand that reforming sex offense prosecutions, and eliminating the registry are absolutely consistent with that organization’s goals. Indeed, meeting those goals may not be possible without reforming sex offense laws.

  • #48127 Reply

    Tim

    Robin,
    You have a unique attitude. It’s nice to know someone else sees the importance of perspective.
    We’ve a girl missing here in Wisconsin, her parents shot dead, a door smashed open and none have a clue yet. If we cannot stop that stuff, by threat of legal action, how the hell we gonna stop anything, by threat of legal action. What’s heartbreaking is the press, even local press, covers more the Khashoggi murder in Saudi Arabia!

  • #48130 Reply

    Ed C

    I found your comment about being a “token” very interesting. I assume by that you are the token former sex offender (SO), and not merely a token felon. It sounds like you have a wonderful opportunity to educate the staff at Just Leadership USA. I’d bet that most of them are not aware of SO recidivism statistics, the diversity of SO offenses and offenders, or the adverse effects of the registry on society.

    As drug offenders were after the 1970’s Rockefeller drug laws, SO’s are today’s “target of opportunity” for fear mongering politicians, ambitious prosecutors and an uneducated public. How did that drug hysteria work out for us? We ended up with draconian crack and marijuana laws, that contributed mightily to the over-incarceration problem we see today.

    Those at Just Leadership USA need to understand that reforming sex offense prosecutions, and eliminating the registry are absolutely consistent with that organization’s goals. Indeed, meeting those goals may not be possible without reforming sex offense laws.

    Thanks for the good work.

  • #48164 Reply

    Sheila

    Good for you, Robin! You are a light in a world that seems so dark and hopeless. This story touched my heart and empowers me even more to fight for my son and others in the same situation. Thank you for sharing your story and making a difference so that others can have hope and know they aren’t alone. I appreciate you. Keep your head up and fighting this seemingly never ending battle. Together, one step and one day at a time….
    We shall prevail!!

    • #48255 Reply
      Robin Vander Wall
      Robin Vander Wall
      Admin

      Thank you so much, Sheila. Yes! We shall.

  • #48208 Reply

    Concerned Citizen

    Robin I’m proud of the progress you’ve made. Not laying down and accepting defeat like so many of us. But instead becoming a part of something to promote change and restore our rights.

    I plan on becoming a lawyer. It’s a long road. Even longer when it’s difficult finding a decent job so I can afford to go to school and not have to worry about bills getting shut off. But I’m still trying.

    I have a question for you though. How does one get invited into these programs? The ones that could help, have high intelligence and a drive to create positive change for everyone? It just sucks when I know in my heart there are so many things I could accomplish in life if I didn’t have the SO label. But since I’m an SO even the lowest level jobs don’t want anything to do with me most times. So how does someone with real potential get involved in these programs and not let their talents go to waste?

    • #48256 Reply
      Robin Vander Wall
      Robin Vander Wall
      Admin

      JLUSA opens up for applicants once a year just around August/September. In my situation, I actually applied for the fellowship twice and didn’t make the cut. The last go around, JLUSA reached out to me, and so I decided to apply again. I guess the third time was the charm. There are opportunities all over the place if you look for them. Just be vigilant. And good luck on your law school efforts. Have you taken the LSAT yet? Biggest headache I ever had in my life after that thing! Of course, it probably didn’t help any that I decided to stay up late for a birthday part the night before. Still, I scored exceptionally well for someone who didn’t know what the hell he was doing. Best kept secret? If you run out of time, answer all the questions. Unanswered questions count against your score. And even if you’re guessing, you’re bound to get a few of them right. After all…that’s what lawyers are doing most of the time. Guessing–in an educated way, of course!

  • #48284 Reply

    Capt Charles Munsey Jr. USN (Ret)

    It’s important that each of us know who we are and have confidence in that person. We can not let others define us. Who we really are will eventually be revealed and respect will come with character strength. Last month, one day I was on probation; within 24 hours my whole life changed for the better. Quite unexpectedly I was released early from probation and within days I was invited to join the Brevard County Reentry Board where I will be working with DOC and sheriff representatives coming up with ideas to restore men and women to their families, their communities, and their country. While I wish I had not had to go through the experience of incarceration and probation, I do believe it made me a better person ready to understand that even good people can have failures in their lives for a variety of reasons. I hope my experience and inputs will give others the courage to hang on and know that hope reigns eternal.

  • #48647 Reply

    Connie Limerick

    Dear Robin,
    Thank you with all my heart for what you are doing to give hope to SOs that life can be better and laws can be changed where they help and not destroy people.
    My husband has been on the Oklahoma SOR for 15 years. He is currently involved in helping men overcome sexual addictions through a excellent program called “Conquer Series”. There is information about it on youtube.
    Like you, he was determine to change his life so he could help others change their’s.

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