In all my years as a reporter, I had never done an interview with someone spending time “behind bars.” Not until the other day.
I talked via Zoom with Matt Hippen of Thompson, N.D. He has been incarcerated in the James River Correctional Center at Jamestown since April 2020. His story is nothing if not compelling.
From the outside looking in, his younger life probably seemed almost perfect to most people. In high school, he played football for the Thompson Tommies. Transferring to Red River High in Grand Forks to take advantage the school’s Theatre Department, he was in many Summer Performing Arts, Red River and community theater productions like “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Les Miserables,” “South Pacific,” “Rent” and “Hair.” He took voice lessons from Maria Williams Kennedy. He was a straight A student.
Things started to go badly for Matt when he struggled with identity issues as a freshman at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Besides some of the usual concerns facing college freshmen, he struggled with being biracial, the suicide of his biological father and being gay.
That lastone was not a problem for his parents, Karyn and Ed Hippen of Thompson, at least. When he came out to them, his stepfather said, “Like a good Vikings fan, you can’t help who you like.”
But in Duluth, Matt overexercised and developed an eating disorder. He turned to alcohol and later drugs. And not one of the “good” ones, either. Meth. He sold, too.
Moving to Florida to be close to another branch of his family, his problems continued. After being raped, he was diagnosed as HIV positive. (Today the virus is nondetectable.)
Back in the area, rock bottom for Matt may have been the night a Grand Forks couple found him passed out in a downtown snowbank. A complete stranger to them, they took him home, gave him a change of clothes and something to eat. There are angels among us. After runs-ins with the law, eventually he landed in Jamestown.
Then, the next chapter of his life would begin, one that would be his salvation.
The Shining Light program was begun in 1999, bringing professionals in theater, dance, spoken word and vocal music into prisons around the country, including North Dakota. Bringing full staging, sound and lighting into facilities with them, they teamed with inmates to create full-length theatrical productions. When COVID hit, making in-person performances impossible, the Shining Light Academy was created. All to help people incarcerated be more successful in re-entering society.
Not only did Matt go through the program, but also he became one of its mentors, coaching prisoners around the country through Zoom. He’s even become known in Jamestown as the “Shining Light guy,” a handle he wears proudly.
Matt is about to face another challenge of his own soon. In August, his parole board will meet. He could be released after that.
Now 32, what to make of the rest of his life? On the outside, Matt wants to help others challenged by some of the same issues he’s faced, perhaps through a program of his own similar to Shining Light. He says, “It’s never a waste of energy or love, to pour positivity into others.”
There are no guarantees in life, but Matt certainly has a healthy support system made up of family and friends. Then, too, the Shining Light program’s success rate in helping the incarcerated adjust to life on the outside is extremely high.
His former vocal teacher and friend, Maria Williams Kennedy, says, “From the first day I met Matt, it was very apparent how driven he was! He loved music and worked so hard to improve in his lessons. It’s been so wonderful to see Matt figure out the true focus and passion in his life in these past years. With the love and support of his family and the Shining Light Program I see nothing but success for him in the years ahead. He will make a difference not only in his life but in the many lives he will inspire in the years to come.”
After watching a Disney movie the night before our conversation, Matt says he had a “light bulb” moment. The first Disney movie he saw as a kid, “The Lion King,” made him feel his life has come full circle, Matt said. In the movie, Rafiki, the wise and playful baboon character, says, “Life can be painful and it can hurt. You can either choose to run from it or learn from it.”
Matt is choosing to learn from it.