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This 80-Year-Old Is Spreading Kindness And Hope In The Most Unlikely Place

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SUELLEN FRIED
SuEllen Fried of Prairie Village, Kan., started a nonviolence program in Kansas prisons. (John Mutrux/Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty Images) | Getty

SuEllen Fried, 80, is a far cry from your typical grandmother of seven. Every week, she visits prisons in Kansas, where she meets with inmates who range from drug and sex offenders to murderers facing life sentences. They've all committed crimes, and they all want to turn their lives around.

"I'm addicted to personal transformations," Fried tells The Huffington Post.

It's an addiction that has led Fried -- an anti-bullying activist and the founder of Reaching Out From Within (ROFW), a volunteer program that teaches Kansas prison inmates the principle of nonviolence -- to build a life that revolves around helping others, particularly those who have been abused or marginalized, reach their highest potential.

During her visits to the state's 18 prisons, the Prairie Village, Kan., resident talks with inmates and listens to them participate in weekly ROFW meetings, which offer coaching in stress relief, nonviolence, kindness and empathy. The meetings operate in a manner comparable to Alcoholics Anonymous. The inmates elect their own officers to lead meetings, and each starts with the group's recitation of a nonviolence mantra:

We believe that no one has the right to hit anyone. We believe in using alternatives to cope with stress and anger. We believe in advocating a violence-free lifestyle. We believe that, even though we are incarcerated, we can help those in need. We believe in the importance of caring for humanity.

The participants then go around and share stories, listen to one another, and discuss any relevant topics of interest -- child abuse and anger management are two that come up frequently -- following the program's "Blue Book" curriculum.

"The discussions are always extremely lively, and they just learn so much from each other," Fried says. The level of honesty and authenticity in the discussions is astounding, she added.

And the effects linger when the meetings end: "When fights break out, the members of our group are always a calming, diffusing influence -- and others in the prison begin to notice how they handle situations differently," Fried says.

Fried co-founded ROFW 30 years ago with a prison inmate as a way to offer help to prisoners who wanted to change their ways. The program's impact on recidivism rates has been enormous: Going through the program dramatically reduces the likelihood of an inmate repeating illegal behavior after being released from prison, Fried says. Over 40 percent of American prisoners released in 2004 returned to a state penitentiary within three years of being released, according to a 2011 Pew study. Among inmates who attend between 20 and 40 ROFW meetings, the recidivism rate drops to 23 percent, according to Fried, and it further decreases to just 8 percent among inmates who attend a minimum of 60 meetings.

Working with the inmates and watching their incredible personal transformations has also been a transformative experience for Fried.

"Some of the people I came to have the most respect and appreciation for are the ones who have committed horrible crimes," she says.

Fried's program is now in every prison in the state of Kansas, and ROFW will soon open its first out-of-state chapter in a North Carolina correctional facility. Fried says that her longtime dream is for the program to exist in every state in the U.S.

Giving back has long been a way of life for Fried, and even now her drive to improve the lives of others is tireless. Since 1976, Fried has worked as a bullying prevention activist, penning five books on the topic, four of which were co-authored with her daughter Paula, a Kansas psychologist. Through her foundation BullySafeUSA, Fried and has helped thousands of students and teachers in schools across the country.

"She is one of those indomitable spirits who has transformed more lives than even she can know," Lynn Hinkle, Fried's friend and the president of the International Women's Forum in Kansas, tells HuffPost. "SuEllen looks at people in their most humane form and sees the best in them, whether they are an incarcerated individual, a bully, a victim, or the president of a company or a country. When she says she believes in you, it feels so true that you feel compelled to believe in yourself too."

So what has a lifetime of working with bullied children and prison inmates taught Fried? Patience, non-judgment, and -- above all else -- compassion. Fried explains the need for compassion using an analogy from Dr. Karl Menninger's The Human Mind: A group of fish are swimming around in a pond when they notice one fish lying on its side with its tail flapping, and they decide to get away as quickly as possible from the weird fish -- never noticing that the reason for its behavior is that it has a hook in its mouth, and the fish was just doing the best it could.

"Every day, we come in contact with people who have invisible hooks that we can't see," Fried says. "But if we could see those hooks and understand what those people are going through, we might appreciate that they are doing the best they can considering the circumstances that they are in."

To continue spreading compassion outside the walls of Kansas state penitentiaries, Fried wears a pin every day that reads, "Power Of Kindness." In the course of the day, she gives it away to someone she sees performing an act of kindness.

"I carry a bunch in my purse to give away," she says, laughing. She often gives them away on plane trips when she sees someone give up a good seat for a worse one so that a family can sit together, Fried says.

Recognizing and celebrating acts of kindness, Fried explains, is the best way to spread a spirit of giving and encourage others to act with empathy.

"We need more than just random acts of kindness," Fried says. "We need intentional acts of kindness."

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post highlighting the contributions of Go-Givers -- people who are looking beyond a "Go-Getter" approach to success and redefining success to include the importance of giving back. To nominate a Go-Giver of the Week, email gogiver@huffingtonpost.com.

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