2018-04-01 / Spotlight

Unlocking Potential

with Thom Brewster, executive director of CentrePeace

Thom Brewster accepts and sells truckloads of used furniture and household goods every day. But he invests in people.

In addition to the volunteers who keep the nonprofit running smoothly, Brewster oversees a handful of inmates from the Centre County Correctional Facility who help maintain its Bellefonte thrift store, collect donations and repair furniture.

“(It) keeps them out of the jail, holds them accountable and gives them some sense of dignity,” he says.
The Butler native and father of two spent time as an Air Force air traffic controller, mail carrier and international businessman before heading back to school in his mid-30s for an advanced degree in psychology. Then he turned his attention to a community in need — prison inmates — and began volunteering at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview in 1997.

“The first day I walked onto the (cell) block, it was the middle of the summer, it had to be 100 degrees in there, and it smelled horrible … yet I felt like I’d come home. It was the strangest feeling I had ever experienced. And that’s never gone away,” he says. “I get as much from them as they get from me.”

In his free time, Brewster volunteers to teach creative nonviolent conflict resolution training to inmates who’ve been diagnosed with mental illness at Rockview and at the county facility.

“I basically help them decide how to make decisions about conflict in their lives without violence,” says Brewster, who also teaches classes on life skills, meditation and other tools to help the incarcerated break the cycle and go on to live productive lives.

His greatest reward is when they do.

“That’s where we get all of our energy, to see that what we are doing is making a difference. They’ll come back and share with us that they’ve had a baby or they’ve gotten a job or a raise, they are so proud,” he says. “If it were not for that kind of feedback from our former trainees, it would be more difficult to do this job.”

Hog Heaven “The greatest challenge for me is to maintain balance. Because this is a very difficult business; there are far more failures than there are successes, and you have to be OK with that. I live, eat and breathe the organization. So I have to force myself away, and the Harley is a great way for me to do that. ...
I have a black ’08 softail custom Harley. It’s really nice, really pretty. It’s a lot of fun.”

Support System “CentrePeace just started a re-entry support group meeting every week, which gives ex-offenders, returning citizens, an opportunity to share some of the anxiety they’re experiencing. They’re already feeling isolated, they’re already feeling like everybody’s looking at them, like they’ve got a number plastered across their forehead. So this for them is a safe, non-judging environment for them to share. We’ve had 10 to 12 people at each session so far. That experience (of being incarcerated) changes you. So we’re trying to help them navigate that process of re-entry.”

“The most unusual item we’ve ever received at CentrePeace is this human skull. It’s been in my office for about three months; I don’t know what to do with it.”“The most unusual item we’ve ever received at CentrePeace is this human skull. It’s been in my office for about three months; I don’t know what to do with it.”Open Road “If you’ve ever been in a Jeep Wrangler without a top on, it’s a feeling of freedom, a feeling of escape for me. I can go and go and go and that makes me happy. ...
I don’t purposely head off-road. Sometimes I end up there but rarely do I set out to because I’m also kind of a clean fanatic, so I don’t like it when it gets dirty. I know it’s a Jeep Wrangler, but I still like it when it shines.”

World Traveler “When I knew I was stepping down from my position that covered the Pacific Rim, my wife, Karen, and I traveled extensively. I wanted her to meet friends I’d met (while living and working in Southeast Asia). We did a swing through the Philippines, Thailand, did a jungle trek up in Northern Thailand throughout the Golden Triangle, and stayed with some hill tribes. We probably had more material goods in our backpacks than they had in the whole village. That’s a real eye-opener.”

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