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From personal struggles comes book of hope, inspiration

Great struggle affords great opportunity to those willing to seize it. This is the guiding principle that led Carol Corwin and her husband, Pete Bekendam, from their battle with alcoholism to the founding of Claremont’s thriving nonprofit Crossroads, providing transitional housing for incarcerated women.

Her recently-debuted memoir, A Spacious Place, is about the journey.  

Ms. Corwin’s tale is as much about her own personal pilgrimage as it is about that of her unconventional family, who helped her life’s purpose take shape over three decades. The title of the book, A Spacious Place, serves not only as the story’s setting—a capacious home in the Chino dairy land that provided for her kids and their extended siblings, including a handful of foster children, incarcerated women and recovering addicts. It also speaks to her life’s work, providing for the marginalized through southern California’s prison ministry.

She drew inspiration to open her heart to others from her own experience as the wife of a struggling alcoholic.

“I used to drive by the [Chino] prison and see the women working outside in the yard. It seemed like a different world,” Ms. Corwin said. “But then I realized that my life wasn’t so different. I was also in a prison of sorts. I knew how it felt to be lonely and isolated, and it inspired me to help.”

Her desire to help came on full-force; not only did she want to become involved in prison ministry, she wanted to create her very own prison-visiting program at the California Institute for Women in Chino.

Not unlike prison life, however, she found herself trapped. The chaplain informed her the prison “didn’t need any more programs,” though he agreed to think about it and get back to her. He never did.

She had put her aspiration of launching a prison-visiting program aside when a chance meeting provided her with her way in. Ms. Corwin and her son had decided on a quick pit stop at Claremont’s annual Pilgrim Place Festival when she struck up a conversation with one of the vendors. The vendor mentioned that she often went to Ms. Corwin’s hometown of Chino to visit women in prison. Her interest was piqued. With the help of the Pilgrim, Ms. Corwin became a part of the American Friends’ visiting program, eventually becoming the program director.

“I felt my spirit had leapt out of my body and was dancing in front of the car,” she writes. “My prayers had been answered. Finally, I had broken into prison.”

Her involvement with the American Friends would provide her with the network she needed to eventually start her own volunteer program, M-2, matching inmates with visitors from the outside. It would be a partnership that would last for years, and inspire many other areas of giving. Like the need for a halfway house to decrease the number of those going through the prison system’s “revolving door.”  Of the 700,000 people released from prison every year, 4 out of 10 will return.

“The first few months are the most crucial, which is why my husband and I decided to start Crossroads together, to provide a supportive, nurturing environment,” Ms. Corwin said. “The idea was to keep each house small, like a family, and provide each housemate with a duty not unlike in a family.”

Ms. Corwin’s work modeled her own personal life. The 5-member Bekendam clan expanded into a large blended family. The spacious dairy served as a godsend allowing them to open their home to formerly incarcerated women, struggling addicts looking for a new start and children in need of a family. The bustling household and its inevitable mishaps add color to Ms. Corwin’s tale, from descriptions of heartwarming family Christmas pageants to anecdotes about the Bekendams’ spirited dog Bingo and not-so-welcome critters that found their way into the home as detailed in the chapter “Bunnies, Bees and Bats.”

Amid the occasional chaos, Ms. Corwin remains remarkably composed and calm. She credits her resilience to her strong belief system, which weaves together her memoir of short stories into one cohesive whole. Her faith and the strength it provided would play a large part in keeping her family together when tragedy struck. At age 17, Ms. Corwin’s son, Michael, died after falling asleep at the wheel and crashing his car. The strong matriarch was overcome with grief.

“The grief was incredibly difficult. You expect your child to outlive you,” she said. “It’s such a sudden cutoff.”

Though Ms. Corwin went through what she would consider a healthy grieving process, finding ways to express her bereavement and leaning on others for support, that was not the case for her husband, who took nearly 4 years to go through his grieving. Following Michael’s death, Ms. Corwin returned to school to become a psychologist in order to help others, like her husband, through their mourning. She maintains her practice here in Claremont.

As if running a practice, leading numerous nonprofit efforts and raising a brood of her own wasn’t enough, A Spacious Place is the second book Ms. Corwin has found the time to pen. Her first book, The Prophet and the Pharaoh, was inspired after a trip to Egypt. Her latest offering touches a little closer to home. While her children have grown and gone and the ranch has been sold to developers, their stories remain.

“It’s a living family record,” she said.

She hopes others will be inspired by their story. “It’s amazing what wonderful things can happen if you just reach out,” she said.

A Spacious Place by Carol Corwin is available for purchase on Amazon.com.

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com

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