On a cold Tuesday morning last month Walter Virgil Jr., a local educator, stood in a community center chapel and delivered what might easily be mistaken for a sermon.
“Find your treasure,” he boomed before a group of about a dozen recently released inmates.
Twisting and gesturing in rhetorical fury, Virgil unspooled an analogy linking an individual’s self-worth to a cache of gold buried somewhere under a dilapidated home.
“This story is about us,” he said. “We’re that rickety house with tall grass. I believe in the concept that you have to dig through your dirt to get to your treasure.”
Virgil, 33, the program director of progressive release at Interfaith Outreach Association, a nonprofit secular organization providing services to needy citizens in the Lynchburg-region, delivered the impassioned metaphor as a part of a regular class he holds at the Salvation Army.
The twice monthly program aims to offer former inmates a healthy path toward re-entering life after leaving custody and is a slightly modified version of a class he holds in two area jails and, as of last year, a juvenile detention center.
Since stepping into the role last May, Virgil has instructed dozens of inmates. And in some cases he has even begun personally mentoring students after their release.
It’s not hard to see why people are drawn to him, said Cheri Almond, the release programs coordinator at the Amherst County Detention Center.
“He’s energetic, lively and very engaged,” Almond said. “He speaks to [the inmates] from experience and he’s very moving with his message.”
As one inmate put it in a handwritten program review: Walter Virgil “is a man on fire.”
He “gives it to you raw, uncut, real,” another inmate wrote.
In illustrating a path toward a healthy lifestyle, Virgil offers himself as an example. He was raised in New Jersey by a father who battled a drug addiction and who was frequently “in and out of jail.” Virgil eventually developed an addiction of his own and for a time was forced to sleep in his car after becoming briefly homeless around 2007.
But Virgil was determined to succeed. After graduating high school he won a scholarship to play football at St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville and later moved to Lynchburg to pursue ministry.
“My story’s not a gloomy one,” he said, “it just had a dark season.”
After arriving in the city he began helping connect needy residents with city services, which eventually caught the eye of Interfaith Outreach which quickly offered him a position last year.
“He seemed to me to have the right personality for it and the right attitude,” said Steve Monetti, Virgil’s immediate predecessor at Interfaith Outreach. “Walter was a home run. He’s sharp as a tack.”
On Instagram, Virgil is a budding influencer. He has nearly 6,000 followers, a level of visibility that landed him an appearance in a Range Rover commercial and stints as “brand ambassador.” He regularly dresses in what he calls his “uniform,” sharply tailored three-piece suits.
“These really are my clothes,” he said.
He admits the outfit may elicit some skepticism from his students but considers the suits a key element to his personal brand. Besides, he said, it usually doesn’t take long for him to get his student’s attention.
“The moment I come in [the jails] and I begin to acknowledge those young men as ‘sir,’ I shake their hand, I look at them in the face and I begin to talk to them they begin to feel that they’re being respected,” Virgil said. “I’ve been really blessed to get a certain level of engagement.”
Virgil’s path to ministry and education ultimately led him to create his own curriculum entitled: Get Fresh and Live. Virgil plans to debut elements of the curriculum this month at a conference in New Jersey, an accomplishment he said he could hardly wrap his head around.
“This teaching is so powerful for me because I’ve had to embody it and … I understand what confronting personal fear and self doubt can do in hindering you, from advancing you, from the things you’re really called to do,” he said. “I wasn’t looking for this. I was just taking a job and not realizing that this vocation has really ushered me into my calling.”