Jean Bell saw the best in everyone she met, even some middle school youths who ran around Concord spray-painting local businesses about 16 years ago.
At the time, she knew, they were teens who had made a couple of bad decisions, but within a few years they could be adults with criminal records. Deciding there had to be a way to address bad behavior without ruining the rest of someone’s life, Mrs. Bell worked with her local police department to launch what at first was known as the Concord Restorative Justice Circle and became Communities for Restorative Justice.
The program, which now operates in 15 suburbs northwest of Boston, brings together those who commit crimes, their parents, their victims, law enforcement, and others from the community to find resolutions outside the court system. Participants typically sit in a circle to discuss what happened and work out a restitution plan.
“You have to have a lot of faith in the process, because it really works,” she told the Globe in April 2002, a couple of years after cofounding the organization. “When we try and treat each other with real understanding, it brings something positive out of each circle.”
Mrs. Bell, who worked for decades to find alternative options to jail and to improve the quality of educational programs inside prisons, died Sept. 8 in the CareGroup Parmenter Home Care & Hospice in Wayland. She was 89 and had lived in Concord since 1957.
Her goal for the restorative justice program was simple: Give a chance to people who might not otherwise have one. It was a mission she continued to follow as the group she helped found expanded.
“She tried to help the people in her community and make her community better,” said her son David of Concord. “She gave more to the world – her world, Concord and Massachusetts – than she took, and she is an example of the best in humanity.”
In the early 1980s, long before cofounding Concord’s restorative justice program, Mrs. Bell began working with her friend Di Clymer to recruit volunteers and bring educational programs to Concord’s prisons. Together, they founded the Concord prison ministries organization, which later became Concord Prison Outreach.
“We were both on the same wavelength,” Clymer said. “She and I were both very interested in the re-entry aspect of prisoners coming back to the community.”
The prison ministries program provided educational and interpersonal classes for inmates, including alternatives to violence, searching for jobs, maintaining family relationships, and studying for a general equivalency diploma. The organization also hosted programs during the holiday season, including a caroling party that Clymer said was Mrs. Bell’s favorite event.
Though quiet, Mrs. Bell was determined, and those traits helped her recruit volunteers for her community projects. She could motivate without being bossy, persuade without being pushy.
“She had a very keen mind, a terrific memory, and she had a beaming smile that was very helpful in persuading people who might not have been interested in the cause to be interested,” Clymer said.
Mrs. Bell drew people into her restorative justice programs, and as a result, she created a precedent for sentencing alternatives in the communities where she worked.
“She was a really good person and did good things for all sorts of people, and a lot of people benefited from that and knew her because of those positive efforts,” said her son John of Bristol, R.I. “You can really do big noticeable things while having a regular life.”
Jean Gordon McCouch was born in Philadelphia, the oldest child of Eric A. McCouch and the former Elizabeth Armstrong. Her sister Ailsa Thompson, who was three years younger, died in 2009.
Mrs. Bell grew up in Philadelphia and graduated in 1945 from the Springside School, a girls’ school that has since merged with its boys’ school counterpart to become Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. She went to Wellesley College, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1949.
One year later, she began working at the State Department in Washington, D.C., where she met Gordon Kendrick Bell. They married in 1953 and she was a teacher at Hamden Hall Country Day School in Connecticut while he went to law school. The Bells had three sons and had been married for 58 years when Mr. Bell died in 2011.
While raising their sons, Mrs. Bell and her husband nurtured their adventurous sides. They took their children hiking, camping, and sailing, and they went on many family vacations together.
“She gave us a lot of room, a lot of space,” John said. “We got to explore.”
In addition to her work with prison programs, Mrs. Bell founded and worked with several other community groups during her decades in Concord. She helped found the Clergy Lay Group in the 1960s, and in the early 1970s, she was a founder of Widening Horizons, which helps women learn about career opportunities outside of the home.
Her family said she also was on the committee of the Hugh Cargill Trust, which provides aid to Concord’s needy, was a member of the League of Women Voters, and served on several committees at Trinity Episcopal Church in Concord, where she was an active member for almost 60 years. In 2004, the community recognized her contributions and humanitarian work by naming her an honored citizen.
State Representative Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat, nominated Mrs. Bell to be among those the state Commission on the Status of Women honored in 2015 as part of the 12th annual Unsung Heroine awards. Atkins recalled in an interview that Mrs. Bell never gave up, even when her programs faced opposition.
“Jean does the slow, water-drip, call-you-every-day, never-give-up advocacy,” Atkins said. “Once she had her focus on something, it never wavered.”
“It was just inherent in her DNA to help people,” Atkins added.
In addition to her sons John and David, Mrs. Bell leaves another son, Donald of Oak Grove, Minn.; and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Oct. 22 in Trinity Episcopal Church in Concord.
John said his mother’s contributions to the community and her determined spirit left an invaluable legacy.
“We should all do as much for the world as she did,” he said. “That would be a good goal for us to all live up to.”
Felicia Gans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.