Chess with the Chaplain: How Kimberly Dove Changes Young Lives One Move at a Time

Excelsior graduate Kimberly Dove uses her position as chaplain at Indian River Juvenile Correctional Facility to help incarcerated youths make better moves on the chessboard and in life.

Chess is a complex game involving strategic planning, tactics, and foresight as players try to control the board and ultimately checkmate their opponent. It’s a worldwide competitive sport, but it can also be a tool for cognitive development and to instill valuable lessons in young minds.

Kimberly Dove, chaplain at the Indian River Juvenile Correctional Facility (IRJCF), in Massillon, Ohio, uses chess to help young people change the course of their futures and leverages her position to make sure everyone she oversees gets the care they deserve. Dove, who earned her Associate in Science in Liberal Arts from Excelsior in 2017 and just earned her Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice in June, has long garnered the praise of co-workers and the young people in her programs for her innovation and dedication—and in 2023, she was recognized by the Ohio Department of Youth Services, as well.

Life Lessons from a Chessboard

At IRJCF, Dove uses chess to help inmates with critical thinking skills and in making strategic decisions that can be applied to life experiences. After working with the U.S. Chess Federation and a neighboring county using a similar tool, she applied her program to youths with mental health issues, who were in gangs, or who had other aggressive issues.

“As it progresses, [the young people] learn at a deeper level; we’ll put a clock against them while they’re playing. And what they find out is that they can play better without the clock against them. Because when the clock is against them, they make moves that they didn’t have time to think about,” explains Dove. Her participants learn the value of making thought-out choices—and how one hasty decision can put you in checkmate. This revelation can transform a young person’s worldview.

Dove’s favorite part about the program is when, six months later, she meets a former inmate, and they express to her how much her program worked for them. In fact, her chess program is so successful that she has a waitlist.

“I Need to Get into Prison”

But Dove doesn’t just organize chess matches. Her job as chaplain is critical in making sure inmates have access to the religious resources they need. She has extensive knowledge of religious laws and makes sure inmates have their prayer rugs, rosary beads, or other religious items. Dove is also responsible for knowing what’s trending in prisons among the gangs. She needs to know, for example, what colors and codes they use so she can help thwart criminal activity. “People have no idea what we do to keep everyone safe,” she adds, noting that her job as a chaplain is not widely understood.

Many young people are born into gangs, so it’s difficult to dissuade them from becoming entrenched in the lifestyle, Dove says. Instead, the best way to prevent gang association is by preventing youths from being active in them to begin with. “We want to use a prevention method to make [youths] become nonactive,” she says. “That’s what we have to teach them.”

Dove’s dedication to helping others stems back to her childhood. Although she had a stable and supportive home environment, she knew that many other children her age did not. Dove recalls: “I still was exposed to some of the kids that didn’t have the home life I had. … I just had something in my heart for disadvantage. I would befriend those youths and protect those youths and take them home and ask Mom to feed them.”

Her devotion to helping the less fortunate led her to pursue social work, and eventually, she began working with at-risk youths in city schools. Many of these young people didn’t benefit from traditional school because of all the time spent in and out of courtrooms. It led Dove to make a career decision: “Doing that, I found out that a lot of the reasons that [the young people] had challenges was because of parenting. Going further, the parents had spent a number [of years] in prison, some county, and I just made this link that if I’m going to help these youth, … I need to get into prison.”

Finding Excelsior—and Success

Dove changed her career from social work to criminal justice and volunteered within the prison system communities. This was also when she discovered Excelsior University (then College). The flexibility of the online programs was invaluable to Dove while working in the prison system, where she sometimes worked long hours and didn’t always have access to the internet. It was invaluable to Dove that Excelsior advisors and staff made her feel like part of a community where she could grow. She recalls the welcoming feeling of Excelsior: “The advisors work well with me. … I’ve gone to other schools, and I did not get what I was able to get as far as feeling that they had embraced me and that they were holding me up.”

Being able to use knowledge and experiences she picked up in her courses directly in her work was also a benefit for Dove. In fact, one of her instructors was a police officer and shared with Dove similar experiences about dealing with aggressive offenders. She enjoyed that her instructors brought this real-life career experience with them to their classrooms. “What was amazing to me is that they weren’t just teachers, professors, but they actually had worked in these fields. So not only were they teaching us from the book, but they were teaching us by experience,” she says.

Dove’s success with young people at Indian River and with incarcerated men and women in Ohio’s penitentiary system drew the attention of her agency, the Ohio Department of Youth Services, who awarded her the facility’s Employee of the Year Award in April 2023. In October 2023, she also participated in the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice (NABCJ), where she presented about gang violence and the best way to discourage youths from joining gangs.

A Legacy Measured in Hearts, Minds, and Souls

With her degrees in hand, Dove hopes to move into a more governmental role. “I hope to eventually start working on policies. I’m huge on policies. Some of them contradict one another, and they need to be rewritten in some areas,” she says. She feels many laws regarding incarceration and the justice system in general need to be adjusted. Dove hopes to be the person to do it.

With regard to her legacy, Dove wants her work to benefit the young people she works with for their entire lives. She remembers working with a man who was incarcerated for 36 years before DNA exonerated him and inviting him to speak at a conference several years ago. The youths in the audience were so touched by his story that many dropped to their knees, crying.

Sometimes the impact of Dove’s work can be that visceral. “I believe that they’ll tell their children, ‘If it hadn’t been for that Chaplain Dove and all the programs and all the other people, you probably wouldn’t be here, because I would have been doing life in prison.’”

More from Kimberly Dove

What is most rewarding about your job?

“I see change. I see someone that without those programs would probably be back in [a detention facility], but with the support, it gives them drive to want to keep moving forward and not step backwards.”

What would you tell somebody who wanted to go into criminal justice but didn’t know where to start?

“I would probably probe them a little bit to see why they want to go into it, because that makes all the difference. Because you’re going to have so many challenges. And if it’s something external, you’re not going to make it. If you’re doing it because everybody else did it or it’s trending, you’re not going to make it. It has to be something deeper on the inside.”