Prison Ministry project gives goodies to children with family in jail

jcheves@herald-leader.comDecember 12, 2010 

As efficient as Arctic elves, two dozen volunteers stuffed 270 hand-sewn Christmas stockings Saturday with toys, books, candy and other goodies, to be given in coming days to children of Fayette County Detention Center inmates.

For many of the children, the stockings might provide their holiday's only joy.

"It's a pretty lonely experience," said Grace Perreiah, who directs the Prison Ministry Stocking Project, now in its fifth year in Lexington.

"They only have a short time — 15 minutes at most — to see their parents through Plexiglass and talk to them through a microphone.

"As they exit the visiting room, the staff gives them a stocking. A lot of the kids are — it's sad to say — being farmed out to other relatives or foster parents, whoever can take them in."

Neither Perreiah nor her volunteers are present to take credit when the stockings are distributed.

"We want them to associate getting the stocking with seeing their parents so they don't feel forgotten," Perreiah said.

Perreiah oversaw two busy assembly lines Saturday at St. Martha's Episcopal Church, one for girls' stockings and another for boys'. Volunteers came from area youth groups and churches, including the Greek Orthodox Church and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington.

St. Martha's member Felicia Levingston and her daughter Zoe, 7, put stuffed animals into girls' stockings.

"I want us to be part of the Christmas spirit," Levingston said. "And I want my daughter to learn to give back to the community and help other little kids whose mommies and daddies are not here for them right now."

Perreiah starts work on the project every June by assigning volunteers to begin sewing the stockings — each of them handsome and unique — and by keeping her eyes open for bulk items, like small books for children, that may be available on sale. By November, big boxes of collected materials begin arriving.

Apart from the stockings, Perreiah visits female inmates at the jail weekly to talk to them and lead Bible discussions. More women are being incarcerated, in large part due to drug crimes, which means that more young mothers are behind bars, she said.

"They may not talk about it openly as much. But for those of them who have children and who are active in their children's lives, it's hard to miss Christmas or any celebration, like a birthday, to not be able to be there or do anything," said jail Chaplain Gerald Howell, who was at Saturday's stocking stuffing.

"Anything that gives a touch of kindness makes a real difference," Howell said. "That's why Grace is wonderful. She cares about people and she's willing to act. We like to say that her heart is attached to her hands and her feet."

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