Photo by Daniel Arauz via Flickr Creative Commons

Locked Up, But Not Forgotten

By: Bill Sanford and Maria Telesco

On the wall, a sign said: Goal 3,900. That was the number of Ziploc bags to be filled for the inmates of the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, the grand finale of the 2009 Goodie Bag project. On Sunday afternoon, December 6, 84 volunteers gathered at the United Methodist Church (UMC) of Merced to meet the challenging goal. And meet it they did, in three hours and 15 minutes!

The number of bags to be filled was significantly down from past years, when the prison census had approached 4,500.

The project was under the auspices of the prison’s Inmate Family Council (IFC). The Merced coordinator of the effort was UMC parishioner Dave Hetland. Fresno coordinators were Glenda and David Roberts, Larry Mullen and Maria Telesco. The Visalia coordinators were IFC Chair Nancy Turk and Rev. Francie Levy.

This was the project’s fourth year, and Hetland has the organization close to perfection. He also showed talent as a statistician. When the day was done, he reported that 17 items had been placed in each of the 3,900 bags. The bags were put into 60 boxes (65 packets per box). The boxes were transported to the prison on December 9. Total items in the shipment: 66,300.

The items in the bags were small but useful and in some instances tasty. There were soaps and shampoos, pencils and greeting cards, toothbrushes and toothpaste, candy and teabags.

Gathering the items was itself a major undertaking that extended over much of the year. Individuals and businesses contributed. Gifts of cash enabled the purchase of items to reach the quantities required.

Still, the big push centered on Sunday the 6th. People from 18 organizations demonstrated laudable compassion and teamwork. They achieved the goal in record time.

A year ago, a number of inmates wrote thank you notes telling how much being remembered during the holidays meant to them. Here are several of their comments:

  • “This is just a quick note to let you all know that we here at CCWF appreciate your efforts so much. There are times when we feel forgotten and cast off, but then little things like the holiday gift bags remind us that people do care.”
  • “I really appreciate the gift you gave us. It got me through a really bad time. God bless you.”
  • “Thank you very much. You brought a smile to my face on a sad day. Much love.”
  • “Thank you for all you do for us. Some of us do not have family who care and support us. Your presents are the only presents most of us receive. Thank you.”

The fourscore volunteers were associated with groups that included the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno; the Fresno Center for Nonviolence; the Green Party; the United Methodist Church of Merced; UC Merced; several churches, schools and fraternities in the Merced/Modesto area; and the IFCs of both the CCWF and the Valley State Prison for Women.

But the Goodie Bag Project is never really over. We count, sort and bag them, then ship them to the prison. We finally exhale and pat ourselves on the back. Then, early in the New Year we start developing a new flyer—this time for 2010—with an updated “shopping list.” We expect to have those in circulation by Valentine’s Day, and the process will begin anew.

Maria Telesco is a retired registered nurse who has volunteered in various aspects of prison ministry for more than 25 years. Contact her at maria.telesco@sbcglobal.net.

Bill Sanford is a retired pastor in Madera.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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