Music Millie": 80+-year-old woman teaching inmates in prison - WBTV 3 News, Weather, Sports, and Traffic for Charlotte, NC

"Music Millie": 80+-year-old woman teaching inmates in youth prison

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Meet Millie Gordon once and you'll never forget her.

She's 80-something (adamantly not specifying) and considers herself to have so many kids, she loses count after 500.

They're not all her actual children, of course.  But she still considers all the inmates at The Western Youth Institution – a youth prison – "her boys". 

"I got into this job because after being married 29 years and having four children, my husband left me," Millie says.  "I was very depressed.  I was doing music in church, but everything had lost its meaning.  It got so bad that one night, I dropped to my knees and asked God to put meaning back into my life. 

"That night, that same night, I dreamed of young boys reaching out through prison bars.  When I woke up the next morning I remembered two years before a man from Western Piedmont Community College had called me and said he had a grant and he'd like for me to teach a part-time music class.  I had turned him down.  I'd forgotten about it until I had this dream.  So I called him, immediately, at the college. 

"As soon as I said my name, he said, ‘Are you ready to start that music program at the college?'.  And I said, ‘Lamar, you mean in two years you haven't found anyone?'.  And he said, ‘I guess we've been waiting for you.'."

That was in 1983.

Thirty years later, Millie still works every Monday-Friday behind bars.  She works with convicted murderers, rapists and armed robbers, all between the ages of 13 and 22.

Look in her eyes when she's talking about these criminals, and there's no doubt she feels love.

"I know so many of these guys are starved for recognition and affection," she says.  "And I feel blessed to have been called – because it is a calling – to minister to these fellas."

She calls it a form of ministry, but technically Millie teaches beginning and advanced classes on how to read music, play instruments and sing.  Inmates must sign up.  Misbehave and she'll kick them out. 

Ask them directly, they'll tell you they have nothing but respect for "Miss Gordon".

"I found my talent through Miss Gordon," says 20-year-old Decorius Daughtry, a self-admitted gang member who's serving time for weapons, drugs and armed robbery.  "She tells me I'm special.  She made me realize I can sing.  Since meeting her, I've done a lot of talking. I help a lot of the younger guys who come in.  Because of her, I let everyone know there's a future for you.  A lot of people look down on us, man, but we can make it in life. We just got to put our mind to it."

Other staff members will tell you Millie is the heart of the prison.  She's the only one with her own marked parking space (not even the warden has one), she has started a volunteer program in the community to get seniors to help teach art to inmates and, as something she's most proud of, she started a prison choir.  Inmates wear church robes.  She makes them practice once a week.

"What do you say in response to the critics who say, 'these kids are thugs'?," we asked Millie. 

She didn't skip a beat.  "These kids are human beings."

"Have you ever been scared?"

"Nope.  Never."

"Never once?"

"Never once.  They would never harm me."  She then put her hand up to her heart and tapped it.  "I know that here."

It's fascinating to witness the mutual respect.  Decorius says when he gets out in two years, he's going to get a job and join a church... all in honor of her.

"I really do love that lady," he says.  "She helped me out -- I feel like she saved my life sometimes.  I feel like she really saved me.  I really feel that way."

Click the attached "web extra" to hear talk about some specific examples of inmates she says have saved her.

The education department at Western Youth Institution recently sent a letter to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory's Office.  He's proposing to shut this prison down in his 2014 budget. 

If that happens, inmates would be dispersed to other facilities. 

This letter, sent to us by the education department, highlights what those staff member say are extremely helpful and successful classes, like Millie Gordon's, only offered to incarcerated youth at its prison. 

We could learn if the youth facility will close by June of next year.

WEB EXTRA: Letter to Gov. McCrory from Western Youth Institution

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