Prison outreach program serving a mission
Though one or both of their parents will be spending the holidays in jail, more than 550 children from Grayson County to Roanoke will have gifts under the tree – thanks in large part to the hard work of a Pulaski woman.
Sharon Webb said that several years ago, she heard about an organization called Prison Fellowship on the radio. The national prison outreach and criminal justice reform organization holds an annual Angel Tree program for children of inmates, collecting gift donations for those whose parents are incarcerated.
She tried to get the New River Valley Regional Jail included in the Angel Tree program for three years, but Prison Fellowship continuously rejected her request because the organization does not work with regional jails and detention centers.
Finally, Webb had no other choice. She created her own version – NRV Prison Outreach.
At first, in 2005, she had modest plans. She set up an Angel Tree at her church, Valley Harvest Ministries in Dublin, so that members of the congregation could sponsor children of inmates at the New River Valley Regional Jail.
But now, her church only sponsors the children from Pulaski County – still about 100 each year – while she has enlisted the help of about 50 other churches in Southwest Virginia to sponsor children across the map. NRV Prison Outreach now includes the Western Virginia Regional Jail and Montgomery County Jail.
This year, 581 children received gifts.
“I’ve worked in the legal field for 20-some years, and I worked in the commonwealth’s attorney office for a while,” Webb said. “And one of the things that really touched me was when a mom would call and say, ‘I can’t go to jail. I have kids.’ I remember thinking, now there’s your real victim.”
Each October, Webb provides the jails with forms for every inmate. Any and all inmates have the opportunity to participate, as long as they are going to be jailed during the holiday season and live within the counties or localities that the jails serve – Bland, Carroll, Floyd,
Franklin, Giles, Grayson, Montgomery, Radford, Roanoke, Salem and Wythe.
On the forms, inmates confirm whether or not they are allowed to have contact with their children and list their children’s names and ages.
On the back of the forms, inmates can provide specific gift ideas.
For each child, Webb calls the main caretaker and asks permission to purchase the gifts. She also asks the caretaker for clothing sizes and additional gift ideas. Many of the children in the program have two incarcerated parents and are living with an aunt or a grandparent, Webb said.
Then the children, ranging from infants to teenagers, are split up by the county in which they live and are sponsored by churches within their county.
Each child receives two gifts – one clothing item and one “fun item,” including toys, music, movies, books, arts and crafts, and so on, as long as the gift is between $15 and $20.
Valley Harvest Ministries sets up an Angel Tree at the church in November and gives congregation members two weeks to purchase the gifts.
“And then each church decides what method they want to use to get the gifts to the children,” Webb said. “They can deliver them, have an open house or have a party, like we did. It’s up to the individual church what they do.”
At their party on Dec. 7, Valley Harvest Ministries hosted about 100 children and their families for food, games and ministry. And, of course, the opening of presents.
The gifts are presented to the children as if they came directly from the children’s incarcerated parents, Webb said. The inmates can write notes that can be attached to the gifts.
“When we go to give the gift to the child, and the child exclaims, ‘He does love me! My daddy really does love me!’ That hits you. You know you’ve done something really, really good,” Webb said.
Officer Toni Trueheart, the program director for the New River Valley Regional Jail, said the program helps solidify the bond between parent and child.
“I think it’s important to make sure that inmates and their children share a connection,” Trueheart said. “A parent and child bond is the most important bond. If you don’t have a good relationship with your parent, that’s something that will always affect you.”
Trueheart said the New River Valley Regional Jail, which usually has about 800 inmates, had 279 participate this year.
Valley Harvest Ministries delivers pictures of the children opening their gifts to the inmates, which really means a lot to them, Trueheart said.
“A lot of them will ask for an address for Valley Harvest so they can say thank you,” Trueheart said. “A lot of men and women, their faces light up when they see their children. Some even cry, especially the women.”
And when inmates are touched so deeply, the effects can be widespread, Trueheart said.
“I think it helps with recidivism. If they can form a good bond with their kids, they may be less likely to come back into our facility,” Truheart said. “And that helps society as a whole.”
The Roanoke Times | 381-8621
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