KAIROS International started in Keystone Heights in 1976. Since then, the organization has become a worldwide prison ministry.
The group of men who went into the Union Correctional Institution 32 years ago spent the weekend in conversation with a few inmates. The organization now has chapters in 33 states and seven countries: the United States, Canada, England, South Africa, Australia, Costa Rica and Honduras. In the U.S., Texas and Florida have the most chapters.
According to local chapter leader Ken Blair, the Greek word KAIROS means "God's special time."
"We are a collection of men spreading a message of hope and love to those who are in the prison system," Blair said. "Often they are men who have no one else to turn to."
KAIROS weekend seminars takes six weeks to organize. Specified volunteer positions, help make the weekend flow smoothly.
Leaders prepare a program on specific, unique and relevant topics, like "wise choices." Other team members listen to the presentation beforehand and give feedback.
The group recruits 30 men to go into the prison to hold each seminar. Once inside, the volunteers try not to judge the inmates and do not ask what their crime was or how long they will be there. Some inmates volunteer the information while others do not wish to talk about it.
An inmate volunteer who has already been through the program, may also join the KAIROS group, once inside the prison.
Each table in the seminar room has a leader, an assistant leader, clergy and six inmates as KAIROS tries to create a community and accountability with the arrangement.
At the end of the weekend the inmates each receive a copy of Bible to keep. Even after the weekend is over, the volunteers go back every other month for a reunion to follow up on progress and connect with the inmate participants.
"The prisoners often sign up for the program because of the food," Blair admits, "but that is okay. At least it gets them to the meeting. We feed them snacks and one meal on Saturday night. Other than that, the men eat the prison food. There is always a waiting list."
Blair looks for leaders inside the prisons, men who can keep the program going by encouraging and talking with inmates after the weekend is over.
Starke KRIOS member Mike Goldwire described Blair as an ex- marine with a big heart.
Blair is a former Keystone Height High School principal, he is highly organized and given his background, knows a thing about training people. The program is for the inmates but among themselves, the volunteers say they become a sort of brotherhood.
KAIROS' recidivism numbers look good. The organizational Web site said 92 percent of individuals who go through the program don't go back to jail.
Blair heads the Keystone Heights team, but other local members include Al Thrower, Dale Freeman and Ed Stark. All four men say they have a passion for helping incarcerated men reorient into society after their sentences are served.
Goldwire said, "I have been so blessed by this program. I have seen and experienced so many things. From a huge biker type who does not personally interact well with others, coming up to hug me, to hearing these guys confess for the first time that they actually did commit crimes, and asking for forgiveness."
Goldwire said KRIOS weekends give him a greater appreciation for his family, his friends and his freedoms.
Blair, Thrower, Freeman and Stark all said they joined the program because they had seen how alone many of the inmates are. They often receive no mail or positive contact from anybody outside the prison system. In many cases their families have abandoned them and the men have given up hope.
One inmate named Cooper attended the fourth KAIROS seminar when the Union Correctional Institution was referred to as "the rock."
"The rock was a terrible prison with the worst inmates," Cooper said. "The program brought the love of Christ to me. It convinced me to reach out in love."
Cooper had been a serial bank robber who sometimes took hostages. He was given a 99-year sentence, with 33 years retained by the judge.
The KAIROS team went to visit Cooper every week and eventually took an attorney before a judge and asked for a release of jurisdiction. One KAIROS took a great risk and volunteered to be Coopers sponsor.
Cooper went on to write for a newspaper and eventually became the publisher. He then started several other prison ministries. He recently performed three weddings and has become an ordained minister. He ended up doing 3.5 years.
Cooper said that what KAIROS taught him to do was live one minute, one day at a time. He said his problem like any other substance was adrenaline. Now he says that regardless of what happens he has piece of mind.
Pf Cooper's accomplishments he said the most important thing is that he stayed out of jail.
"Florida is setting the bar for all other states, and I am glad to have been a part of this program."