Merlene Davis: Inmates make a difference, donating 18,000 handmade items to agencies

A stuffed money is among the thousands of items knitted each year.
A stuffed money is among the thousands of items knitted each year. Herald-Leader

Many of the inmates at the Leestown Road Federal Medical Center have spent time sewing, quilting, crocheting, knitting and creating wooden jewelry boxes and toys — 18,000 items — which will be distributed by agencies throughout Kentucky, just in time for Christmas.

And those gifts are not just thrown together, let me say.

"If it is not something you would give to one of your children or one of your family members, then it won't go out," said Gail Greathouse, 59, who is in training to be the coordinator for the project.

Greathouse will take over as boss when Norma Canipe, 54, is released from prison in March. And by all accounts, Greathouse's task won't be very easy.

Under Canipe's direction, a fledgling program that produced a few hundred items each year is now a mammoth operation.

"I don't do a lot of crocheting; I just make sure it is done," she said. "I say I need a hundred of these and make sure it gets done."

But there's a little more to it than that.

Toni Wilder, 68, said the group makes about 200 bears a year for the Kiwanis Club in Scott County. Those bears were completed in April. When Canipe learned that she was leaving, she had the women make 100 more so far, just to get a good start on next year.

"She didn't think the quality would be up to her standards," Wilder said.

Wilder's specialty is making mats for partially sighted preschoolers in the Visually Impaired Preschool Services, and some children with the Down Syndrome Association of Central Kentucky. The mats have textured shapes that can be traced by little fingers and appliqués that move or make sounds.

"I am the garbage person," Wilder said with no hint of a smile. "I go through all of the scrap material to make these."

Nothing is wasted. Out of a couple yards of fabric, the women can make a baby blanket, a bib and a child's apron. The leftovers are cut into 5-inch squares for quilting, and the scraps are stuffed into a doggie bed.

The project falls under the Community Relations Board, which is chaired by Sally Leukefeld, who has been with the board for 23 years.

"When I came, it was just a little knitting," Leukefeld said. "Then we started the quilting program."

Quilting really took off when Elise Kalika became the quilting teacher, she said. "She made our program so much better," Leukefeld said, About 200 of the 280 women inmates at the minimum security camp are quilters.

The woodcraft items are built by the male inmates. Some of them who are ill make crocheted and knitted animals, too.

Sometimes the women get to deliver the items, allowing them to see the joy their work brings to others.

One year, Canipe delivered items to a domestic violence shelter, where one little girl gleefully donned a hat and scarf and pulled a wooden dog wherever she went.

"That touched me," she said, still emotional. "Everything that I've been through, to see that, it just touched me."

Kim Brown, 50, quilts and crochets, when not at her job at the camp and other responsibilities. She proudly displayed a colorful youth-size quilt, complete with matching pillow case, that will soon become a treasured item.

"Time management is a great skill I've learned," Brown said.

Kenny Coleman, FMC's camp administrator, said the project, which distributed 10,000 items last year, is a "three-way partnership between the community relations board, the institution and the inmates.

"Many of them don't have ties in the Lexington area," he said. "They just feel the need to give back to the community."

The amazing part to me is that the program has no budget. Everything the women and men use is donated. Everything. And with 18,000 gifts going out this week, material is desperately needed.

"Yarn is the hardest to get," Leukefeld said. "I speak at churches and other groups and beg. That is the way we exist."

About 10,000 yards of fabric has been donated, Greathouse said.

"Stuffing would be a gift from heaven," Leukefeld said. "We'll take money, too."

Other institutions look at FMC's program as a model, she said.

"This is the place where it is happening, where we are setting the example of how it should be."

And that is fine by these women who just want to make a difference.