How do you get ready for the day? We all have our own routines, but I imagine that soap, deodorant, shampoo and toothpaste are part of the picture. It is hard to imagine life without them. But where I work, these common items are luxuries and special treasures.
I work for a rehabilitation facility in Cincinnati. We are a non-profit organization that specializes in the needs of those suffering the effects of domestic violence, addiction, poor mental health and prostitution. Our goal is to get them back on their feet as an active member of the community.
The facility I work with operates in cooperation with the county jail. We offer counseling and help for men, women, teens and children. It is a lockdown facility, in a dorm setting, with Correction Officers on guard on each floor.
I am the first person new inmates come into contact with for orientation. I go over policies, procedures, and regulations and let them know what is expected of them. I help them with the mounds of paperwork to sign. As their first contact, I try to remain cheerful and positive in a rather dark and bleak situation.
I work primarily with the women. Through the years I have had the opportunity to meet with women from many different backgrounds. Some definitely belonged in jail and will probably always be a part of the system. But there are also women who are the victims of terrible circumstances. These women are not “born criminals,” and many can be reached and have been reached with great success.
You have probably heard the saying, “You don’t know a person until you walk a mile in their shoes.” Can you truly imagine what it is like to be an innocent 5-9-year-old child and your parents, the only people you know and trust for love and guidance, sell you into prostitution so they can have money for drugs? Even young babies are not safe; parents or “caretakers” allow them to be molested, raped and abused sexually for the pleasure of paying strangers. As a reward for being “good girls,” they are given drugs so that they too become dependent.
I have heard horrific stories that have made me cry out to God to save these lost little girls. I meet girls who have been locked in cages, poked with cattle prods for fun, and brought out to entertain men and women at parties, then thrown back into cages. Yes, this happens. It is happening—in America! They may be grown women now, but who was there for them when they needed help the most? Many of them are so broken and shattered mentally, emotionally and spiritually that without God’s help they can never break free from this lifestyle.
But when you are going through this terrible abuse, how can you believe in a God who loves you, and wants to save you, and have you be forever a part of his family? It sounds too good to be true, many have told me. That is why I always try to be an example and a light. My work gives me an opportunity to share little doses of God’s love with people who need it so desperately. I find myself learning more about God’s love by being with them. We learn to help each other.
The Bible shows us that love is often best expressed in practical ways. Sympathy and encouragement is fine, but maybe what someone who has nothing really needs to help them feel better is a bar of soap and a toothbrush. So I approached my church (Christ Fellowship Church, Cincinnati) with an opportunity to do an outreach for these women. Could we make up small bags of toiletries to give to each woman at orientation? Our congregation responded enthusiastically.
Next, I had to approach the sheriff’s department for their approval, because nothing comes into a jail without their approval. We were approved to make up bags containing a regular bar of soap, a toothbrush, a plain style comb (no rat tails, as they can be used as weapons) and trial sizes of shampoo, toothpaste, and deodorants, etc. I went back to church and told them what we could do. We decided to add two more items—a little book called The Dancing God, by C. Baxter Kruger, and a small card that the person packing the bag could sign letting the recipient know that they would be praying for them.
So now, when we do our shopping, our congregation adds a few small items to their normal purchases. Every other week we fill 60 bags for the women. Who would have thought a simple gesture like this would have such a great impact? Even the hardest of girls soften when they looked into their bags and see the free gifts. When they find the card and read that someone has prayed for them, many of them just cry. This is my favorite part of orientation. I wish everyone could be a part of witnessing what I see.
That small act of kindness has changed the hearts of many of the girls who have come through the doors of our facility. Some have started praying for the person on their prayer card. Some have asked for permission to put Bible verses and inspirational sayings on the wall. Some even started asking, “How could God love me after everything I have done?”
What a joy it is to let them know that no matter what they’ve done or who they are, God loves them. He always has and always will. There’s nothing they have done in their lives that God cannot forgive. And sometimes all it takes is a tube of toothpaste from a stranger to help them take the first cautious steps towards true freedom.
There are facilities like the one I work in all around the country, so maybe your church could do something like this. Then, as you are shopping for hygiene products for your family, you could add a small gift for a woman in jail.
Buy one—and set one free!
Leanne Wickey, 2011
Comments from girls who have been helped
Patricia: “Life on the streets is not a very clean life, and if you get arrested, no one really seems to care that you are not clean, but here they give you a bag of hope. A bag of hygiene supplies, and just being able to feel clean just gives you a whole lot of hope. Thank you.”
Julie: “I have never been arrested before, and when you feel lost and scared, someone comes along who actually cares, it’s like getting a present of nice things, and then you see that someone is actually praying for you, it just made me cry. I will never forget that little bag. I will keep it always to remind me there was hope where I thought I would never find it.”
Sharon: When asked if I would say something about the hygiene bag, I was thrilled! When I came in, over the weekend, no one was very friendly or seemed to care—I was alone and had nothing. They wanted me to take a shower & I told them I had nothing to take a shower with, where could I get something? They left me on my own. Monday morning when they called me out for orientation, I thought, “Great, what now?” But after meeting one of the nicest ladies leading orientation, I thought there just might be a glimmer of light here. She was very pleasant, non-judging and very concerned for my well-being. Afterwards, she gave me a bag—finally, my shower supplies! There was a book and a card saying that someone was praying for me. God bless the small things!
Andrea: In jail, no one cares too much about you unless they want something from you, but at orientation Leanne was so cheerful and funny, for just a moment you forgot where you actually were. When she said her church made these hygiene bags just for us, I waited until everyone left and gave her a hug. I know you’re not supposed to do that to staff, but I knew she was different and really cared about my well-being. I will always keep my booklet and my prayer card, because I am praying for my person as well. Thank you, CFC.
Author: Leanne Wickey