CENTRE COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) – People spend their lives searching for a purpose. Grace “Marie” Hamilton found hers while surrounded by incarcerated men at the Rockview State Correctional Institution (SCI Rockview).

Marie saw many needs in that prison and knew she could use her gifts to make a change.

Marie Hamilton at SCI Rockview

Born and raised in Blair County, Marie and her family moved to State College in 1971, where she followed her passion for service and formed the Voluntary Action Center. It was the first place of its kind for community volunteerism.

Marie Hamilton forming the Voluntary Action Center

“We had hundreds of volunteers registered with us and we would match them with the needs of the community,” Marie said.

If there wasn’t a program to fill a need for an organization, she created it.

One facility she hadn’t worked with yet, was SCI Rockview.

“I was given permission to set up a visitation program,” Marie said.

Walking into SCI Rockview for the first time, Marie said she felt shocked and knew it was time to get to work.

“I remember where I was standing in that cell block, and I thought, this is where I belong,” Marie said.

Each week for about 35 years Marie taught courses to the inmates on creative, non-violent conflict resolution, values, and family life. She also built friendships during that time.

“I never felt safer,” said Marie.

Through the power of love, Marie connected to the prison community.

In 1975, Marie founded CentrePeace, a program that offers training and helps to find healing and accountability for offenders.

“I called it CentrePeace because when we would go into the prisons, oftentimes the inmates would say, ‘You just bring peace’,” Marie said.

The most visible part of CentrePeace is the storefront along Benner Pike sells furniture that’s been restored by inmates. It’s an opportunity for them to practice social and trade skills.

“Marie saw the humanity and a lot of time injustices that were done,” said Cathleen Brown, executive director of CentrePeace. “She dedicated a lot of her life to supporting incarcerated individuals.” 

In 1976, Marie founded the Center for Alternatives in Community Justice (CACJ) which provides pre-trial intervention, bail programs, and victim, offender mediation led by Marie herself.

Then, she started what became the largest inmate volunteer event in the world, Runathon, where inmates run to raise money for helping troubled youth.

Marie recalled one of the most striking moments: “Judge Charles Brown Jr. was running with the inmates and talking to them. Some were the very inmates he had sentenced to the prison. And I said, ‘Ok God, I see, I see how the Runathon is tearing down the walls’.” 

Marie is now retired, but she’s still working for justice.

“We have just started,” said Marie. “It’s because I have seen, in the very toughest of situations, that restorative justice works.” 

CentrePeace and CACJ are still active today and her legacy runs strong.

“She is a giant fluff-ball of love, of light, of goodwill, of grace, of compassion,” said Cathleen Brown. “She is a walking example of someone who lives for others.”

Looking back and looking ahead, Marie said, “I just smile all day long.”