For the Love of Other People

Jan 19, 2012 by Tom Dellner

“Coach” Mara Leigh Taylor, PsyD—Recipient of the Inaugural CalSouthern Difference Award—Has Improved the Lives of Tens of Thousands of Incarcerated Men, Women, and Children Worldwide

"It was at that precise moment that I had discovered my calling. It was then that I knew what I would be doing for the rest of my life."

It seems clichéd. A scene from a formulaic movie. Moved by the lecture of a beloved English professor, a student devotes herself to a life in academia. Upon witnessing a gray whale breaching the blue waters of the Pacific, a young man just knows that one day he’ll become a marine biologist. A school-sponsored trip to the symphony inspires a career in music.

In reality, few of us are absolutely certain that our jobs and careers are what we’re truly called to do. We second-guess critical decisions we’ve made in our lives, or wistfully think about the changes we’d make “if we had it to do all over again.”

But for a lucky few of us, the cliché is reality. An event triggers something inside of us and all of a sudden, everything falls into place: we know what we were put on earth to do.

Dr. Mara Leigh Taylor“Coach” Mara Leigh Taylor, PsyD—recipient of the inaugural CalSouthern Difference Award—is one of those people. But her epiphany wasn’t one of the typical Hollywood variety. Coach Taylor discovered her calling the first time she saw a prison yard.

“I remember it distinctly,” she says. “I had just walked through the third security door at Terminal Island Federal Prison. At the exact moment the door slammed shut behind me, I looked up and opened my eyes to see the yard before me. It was this expanse of perfectly manicured lawn, without a speck of trash. Roses lined the sides of the yard. I had arrived on movement, and all these neatly dressed men—most of whom were carrying books—were walking across what could have been a college campus. I suppose it was an odd reaction, but I remember feeling that I was where I was supposed to be. It felt, in a strange way, like home.”

Coach Taylor was on a tour of the Terminal Island facility near Long Beach, California. It was part of a drug-treatment class she was taking while working on her master’s degree. (“Truth be told, I only went for the extra credit,” Taylor now admits.)

On that day, the framework of an idea—a big idea—began to fall into place. That big idea eventually became Getting Out By Going In (GOGI), a non-profit organization founded by Taylor in 2005 and dedicated to fighting recidivism and—more important—to improving the lives of incarcerated men, women, and children by teaching them tools for making positive decisions.

Together with a group of inmates, Taylor developed and published the Twelve Tools of GOGI. They’re taught primarily via correspondence, but increasingly, inmates—sometimes on their own, and sometimes with the sponsorship and assistance of the facilities—are creating GOGI study groups and helping one another develop and refine their decision-making skills.

With no money to promote GOGI and its tools, things started small. A single inmate from the California Men’s Colony wrote to Coach Taylor, interested in GOGI. Slowly and through word of mouth only, GOGI began to spread from prison to prison in California, and then across the United States.

Today, there are GOGI students in every state in the continental U.S. Coach Taylor (the “Coach” moniker came from the inmates who weren’t sure how to address her; “Coach” just seemed to be the best fit) has received correspondence from Canada, Tahiti, and Hawaii. Inmates are studying GOGI materials in Ireland, Africa, and Romania. Books are being translated into Spanish, Farsi, and Mandarin. Tens of thousands of prisoners have changed their lives, thanks to Coach Taylor’s big idea.

Taylor readily admits that there’s not necessarily anything new about the GOGI tools. They’re simple, with names like Boss of My Brain, Five Second Lightswitch, and Reality Check. Cynics might deem them unsophisticated. Just don’t say that to any of these people whose lives have been influenced by Coach Taylor.

Instead, ask them—as I did—about the impact that Coach Taylor and GOGI have had on their lives. Jim will tell you that she’s been a beacon of light, showing him the way to a better life. Davida will speak of how all she ever wanted was to get to a place in her life where she was happy to see the sun come up in the morning and actually feel good to be alive. “I’m there. Thanks to Coach, I’m there,” she says. Maria will explain it in even simpler terms: “She saved my life. Coach saved my life.”

David, after noting how he is sure he would be using drugs and/or back in prison if it weren’t for Coach Taylor, offered some thoughts on why these simple tools work, where so many other programs fall short. “GOGI operates simply for the love of other people, regardless of the mistakes they’ve made. It’s done for the joy of watching people grow and flourish in ways they never would have imagined were possible. GOGI and its tools work because they are real, legitimate, honest, and 100-percent sincere.

“Just like Coach Taylor.”

California Southern University is honored to name “Coach” Dr. Mara Leigh Taylor the recipient of the 2012 CalSouthern Difference Award.

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