Norma Canipe, an inmate at a federal prison in Lexington, smiled as she watched a young girl flit around a shelter for domestic violence victims wearing a handmade hat and scarf that Canipe had given her.
Like many people at the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program's emergency shelter, the girl and her mother escaped an abusive home and probably had little hope for a happy Christmas with lots of gifts. Knowing this made the experience all the more special, Canipe said.
"It was worth like a million dollars to see it," she said. "It made her so happy, it just melted my heart."
Canipe, 52, is serving time for what she described as "money charges." She is one of about 75 female inmates at the Federal Medical Center on Leestown Road who spent much of the last year knitting, carving, crocheting or sewing Christmas gifts for the needy.
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The effort resulted in nearly 5,000 toys, blankets, clothing items and other gifts being donated this month to about a dozen Central Kentucky shelters, non-profits and care organizations.
Inmates already have started working on presents for Christmas 2013. The inmate gift program is seeking donations of fabric, yarn, carving wood and other craft items to get started, said Sally Leukefeld, president of the Community Relations Board for the Federal Medical Center. The inmate gift program is financed by donations and recycling initiatives, officials said.
Inmates who volunteer for the gift program hand-craft items throughout the year. They stitch, sew and chisel in their free time — whenever they're not "working or attending programming," Leukefeld said.
Male inmates work at a wood shop in the prison to carve wooden toys, jewelry boxes and puzzles. The men also make Braille books and toys.
Inmates at the minimum-security women's camp, which is outside the main prison, knit and crochet clothes, blankets, stuffed toys, bags and other items. They also quilt, sew and embroider gifts.
"It's just a way for them to be productive and to give back and to help out the local community," said William Caise, a correctional counselor at the women's camp. "A lot of them recognize the mistakes that they've made. They can't take back the past, but this is a way for them to make amends."
It also gives donors a chance to contribute to a worthy program, and it results in gifts for people in need, Leukefeld said.
"It's win-win-win," she said.
Inmates donate handmade items all year, but the majority are given out at Christmas time. Caise said inmates made about 6,000 items this year; 4,744 of those were delivered in December.
Most of the time, the gifts are delivered to their destinations by volunteers and board members. However, female inmates were allowed to take two supervised trips to drop off gifts this year.
On Dec. 12, Canipe and several other inmates dropped off gifts at Northpoint Care Center nursing home on Trent Boulevard. That event was organized by Miranda Combs, a former Lexington TV news anchor and reporter who serves on the prison's board with Leukefeld, and others.
The inmates made blankets, pillows, bibs and tote bags for the residents at the center.
The week before that, several inmates teamed with members of Eastern Kentucky University's criminal justice student organizations to hand out gifts at the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program shelter in Lexington. James Wells, a criminal justice professor at EKU and a member of the prison's community relations board, organized the event.
"Domestic violence has touched the lives of many Kentucky families, including those of some of our students," Wells said. "Since many of the women inmates at FMC may have been victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives, I thought this service project would have special meaning for them."
It did. Like Canipe, inmate Tina Bryant, 44, cherished her experience at the shelter. The reactions from the women and children were "worth every day of my incarceration," said Bryant, who has three years left to serve of a 10-year sentence for drug conspiracy charges.
"The smiles on their faces told the whole story," Bryant said. "They were just so excited and caring and giving back to us, letting us know they appreciated what they got."