Bag of Hope by
When you enter the prison system, you are stripped of a variety of things: property, money, employment, relationships, respect, and your home. One of the biggest losses felt is your dignity. When you are talked to like you are a piece of trash - everyday for years - you start to believe it. You do not feel that you are worthy of anyone's love, support, or time. If offenders are programmed this way, it should be of no surprise what contributes to a failed system and recidivism. A tiny moment, a random act of kindness, can make a monumental difference as a person exits prison and re-enters society. One congregation is making a positive impact on incarcerated veterans and forever changing their lives.
I met John in January 2017. We were both selected to participate in the prison's first PTSD group. John was a marine, served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and fought in the Battle for Ramadi. He earned a Purple Heart during that deployment and experienced some of the same horrors that I did. We both had lost friends to terrorist acts in Iraq. At the PTSD graduation ceremony, we gave speeches about our struggles and how we are coping with PTSD inside of prison. We needed to tell our story.
As a decorated combat veteran, John was dealing with issues that are not uncommon to incarcerated veterans. He had no place to call home in Missouri and applied to various reentry establishments. He would initially get accepted, be excited, and then let down as he was rejected due to his mental health rating. His mental health status was elevated due to taking a medication: antidepressants. Each time he was let down, it was crushing for both of us. Finally, a veteran specific release center accepted him - mission accomplished, or so I thought.
About 10 days after John's release, I contacted him by phone. He spoke of great things about his new living arrangements, his cell phone options, and a job interview. I asked him what it was like walking out the door to freedom. The phone got quiet for a moment and I didn't like the pause. John said the prison gave him some mix matched clothes to wear and the pants were too big. He stated that he was "embarrassed" when he arrived at the reentry center for his new lease at life. His words stung every aspect of my very being. My emotions went from rage to sadness to worry then just annoyed at the system in place. That irritation was one heck of a motivator to this former non commissioned officer. I vowed that if it's in my power, I will not let another veteran leave from this institution without a set of dress outs (one set of clothing to wear out).
Now I have a mission - a purpose. A line in the Soldier's Creed states, "I will never accept defeat," and so it began. I wrote to various churches within 30 minutes of the prison. On July 26, 2017, Family Life Fellowship (FLF) answered my prayer, my mission, my path to moral restitution. But, not only did they respond, they went beyond what I asked for by offering clothes (plural), and "personal items to help set them up for success once they are released." As I read those golden words, tears streamed down my face. For a letter to make a man weep in prison, it would normally be a death notification, Dear John, or release papers. To see people care about men in prison, that have no relationship to them, and go a step farther, rekindled my faith in humanity and God's unconditional love.
Being in a state correctional institution, with lots of rules, regulations, and policy concerns, the next step is planning. As I showed the treasured letter to various staff members to see who will assist me, one director's comment was, "This is a good problem to have." We got most of the red tape worked out and our first "Bag of Hope" reached a veteran that was released January 2018.
I chose the term "Bag of Hope" because that is what it is for these men. Having decent clothes sets the pace for the first day back into society. Just to be able to see your Mom after a long time away, your children after a decade, your new living arrangements, or walk into a store, buy a candy bar, and look like everyone is comforting. You struggle to rid yourself of the feeling that everyone knows you just got out of prison. But, by looking presentable, it can help break a man's view of himself as a lowly criminal, and to own your own hygiene products, not being dependant on your parents toothpaste, your children's shampoo, or your friend's deodorant, adds to a man's confidence of self sufficiency. That is exactly what Family Life Fellowship is giving these men - Hope.
The story doesn't end here. I spoke with a veteran about the struggles on the outside and what else could help. He informed me that a wallet would be beneficial to a newly released vet. I had never thought about that since I've never been released from prison. When you first get released, most guys will not have a cell phone, but will have all of their identification: state ID, social security card, birth certificate, DD-214 (military discharge papers), parole officer's card, bank card for any funds on your inmate account, and various other contact information. So I wrote a letter to FLF about the predicament and one of their Vietnam veterans stepped up and pledged to purchase a new wallet to go with each Bag of Hope.
To witness a community come together, supporting veterans that are scared to death of failing again, moves not only a man's soul, but also his outlook on life, faith, and humanity. The Bag of Hope is a symbol of love that not only touches a man's heart, but also impacts his soul.
"I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me."
Disclaimer: The veteran's name was changed to protect his identity. I hope this story serves as an inspiration to others.
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