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Toy program helps inmates give back

The wooden toys he makes to give away remind Marty Burden of better days.

Back before drug and weapons charges netted him a 91/2-year sentence, before he became an inmate at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington.

"It's rare in prison to be able to do something to give back," he said. "I'm lucky to be a part of it."

Soon the conversation winds where it often does — to his son, Matthew. Although Matthew is now in medical school, the thought of years ago putting together his Radio Flyer from Santa chokes Burden up a bit.

"It would be nice to see the kids who get these," Burden said, "even pictures. That would be neat."

Burden's wares, which include handmade wooden planes, trains and puzzles, will join thousands of items crafted by inmates at the prison on Leestown Road and the women's-only camp next door as they go to disadvantaged people, mostly children.

The year-round effort culminates Tuesday with toys and scarfs and blankets delivered to some 20 community organizations, said Sally Leukefeld, president of the center's Community Relations Board.

The board is a non-profit organization that helps oversee service projects for inmates, most of whom were convicted of drug-related crimes. The effort began in the early 1990s with some crocheting and knitting but has expanded each year since. All the supplies are donated, she said, adding that making it a "win-win-win" for all involved.

There's a lot of room in the program to be creative. But the use of potentially dangerous tools like saws and hammers is carefully monitored. ("It's still a prison," said Kevin Hicks, the center's general foreman.)

Each year, Leukefeld said, new things appear in the inmates' repertoire of crafts. This year the eight or so men in the project have starting making "Picking Chickens," a weighted paddle toy modeled on a pattern from the 1880s. With a slight bounce of the hand, the fowl on top bend and peck.

Then there are the padded notebooks, a specialty of Bill Isom, a wheelchair-bound grandfather of 20.

"I get a lot of good feelings knowing that I am helping someone," said Isom, who was convicted on drug charges and has lung disease.

Isom is one of the roughly 700 inmates at the prison who have health issues. But the majority of the 2,000 inmates, like Burden, are moved to the prison because of their good behavior. Either way most are too far from home to see their families often.

Inmates volunteer to help with the toy project and spend five to six hours a day at work, Hicks said.

"If you tell them it is for kids, they will all go to bat and do everything they can," he said.

At the women's camp, just a short walk away, many involved in the project are mothers and grandmothers. Helping some child have a merry Christmas is a small way to honor the loved ones they can't see.

Susan Von, who was convicted on tax evasion charges, said it helps send a message to her family that "regardless of your circumstances, you can still give back."

And, she said, it can be a lesson in creativity.

"You'd be surprised what we can do with cardboard," she said.

For others, it's a lifeline.

"It helps you stay in touch a little bit with the outside world," said Nyla Hodge, who was convicted of drug-related charges.

The crafts project was life-changing for Heather LePoidevin, who also is in prison for drug charges. When she first got to the medical center, she had never really done much art. But, she said, another inmate gave her a few lessons and told her she could do anything if she tried.

So she tried.

Now the walls of the visiting space are decorated for the holidays with an array of life-size Disney characters LePoidevin painted: a green-clad Tinkerbell, Shrek and his bride, Fiona, Snow White and her seven little friends.

Having space away from drugs made LePoidevin realize the damage her abuse had done to her family, her community and herself.

"When I first got here," she said, "I didn't realize that I could give back."