By Zaimarie De Guzman

Clifford Curry remembers the day he felt forgiven: March 29, 2011. He had served 30 of his 70 years in prison.

An inmate at Martin Correctional Institution near Indiantown, 67-year-old Curry found hope through the Kairos Prison Ministry International program.

The nonprofit aims to bring faith-based counseling to local inmates, as well as reduce the rate of re-incarceration through four-day spiritual retreats twice each year.

When he joined Kairos last year, Curry wasn’t in it for the speeches or gospel music offered by the group of volunteers. He was there for the free, homemade food given during breaks — specifically the barbecue ribs.

“I was dead inside, and I didn’t believe anything could happen so that I’d change. I had no hope and I really just went to eat — I haven’t eaten that kind of food in years,” said Curry, who this year joined Kairos again as a helper instead of a participant.

“But when I got out (of the program),” he added, “it’s hard to explain how I felt. I just couldn’t believe human beings could show you so much love. They made me feel like I wasn’t a bad man anymore.”

Curry, of Miami-Dade County, was incarcerated in 1981 for offenses that include robbery with a deadly weapon, aggravated assault and sexual battery-related crimes. His crimes are unknown to most of the volunteers in the Kairos group.

“We never ask what they’ve done or how long they’re here for. We don’t care,” said 67-year-old Jim Couillard, a 15-year volunteer with the program. “We’re here to do four things: listen, listen, love, love.”

The Hobe Sound resident is one of 42 volunteers who spent nine weeks preparing for the March event. Preparations included choosing at random 42 of more than 150 first-time inmate applicants, as well as raising more than $5,000 for food, gospel song books and other materials.

The inmates are grouped during the retreat into “families,” in which they reflect about choices they’ve made, write their thoughts, listen to speeches and sing gospel songs.

The volunteers come from all over the Treasure Coast, as well as out of state. Out-of-towners made arrangements last week to sleep on the floor of the education building at the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Palm City.

“We see the sacrifices these people are making — spending their weekend and money on us, sleeping on the floor for several nights, leaving their family and kids to be with us — and we all feel like we’re saturated in this selfless, unconditional love,” said 47-year-old Steven Wonder, an inmate from Sebastian who joined the program in 2007 and this year also returned as a helper.

Sentenced in 1986 to life in prison for crimes that include first-degree murder, Wonder said one of the most touching aspects of the program is receiving mail from church members.

“I still have them — the little letters you get from kids and people who don’t know us but tell us we’re still loved,” said a teary-eyed Wonder. “This love that people are giving us, it has to be from God. It has to be. No human can create this.”

Curry and Wonder, among other graduates of the program, each month attend a Kairos reunion at the prison, where volunteers and inmates go over testimonials and reinforce their faith.

Volunteer Francis Turck, of Tequesta, makes sure he is in attendance at each reunion, not only at Martin Correctional, but at South Bay Correctional Facility, as well.

More than 20 years ago, Turck spent six years in prison for aggravated battery.

“We didn’t have anything like this when I was in prison, and I feel like it would have helped,” Turck said. “I know that I’m making a difference in these men’s lives. I’ve seen it. They’re making a difference in mine, too.”