It was all about the pecans. Growing up in south Georgia (where we pronounce the last syllable as “can”), I was accustomed to the highest quality pecans: large, light brown and delicious. During my 25 Christmases as a prisoner they were the luxury I most looked forward to receiving in my holiday package. Along with other goodies my mom would send me three pounds of pecans. Did I want peanuts, walnuts or almonds? No.
I would gorge myself on the first pound, then make the other two last as long as possible, sometimes into February even. It is hard to express how much these packages meant to me. In a world of constant deprivation and typically low-quality food it was a taste of freedom. It was also a message from my family that I was still loved, that they were thinking about me as they gathered together to celebrate.
There were a lot of men who didn’t have that kind of support though. Sometimes their families simply didn’t have the money to mail an expensive package. Sometimes the families were out of the picture, either alienated or non-existent. For these men Christmas had the potential to be the darkest time of the year, surrounded by reminders of how alone they really were.
The administration was aware of their plight, and chaplains were charged with gathering food, cosmetics and other goods to distribute to every prisoner. Usually there wasn’t much money in the budget though, so the chaplains counted on donations from local businesses and ministries to fill the grocery bags, which we called “happy sacks.”
Every year I would see a small bottle of lotion with a label reading, “Azalea City Prison Ministry.” This was in Quitman, Ga., near my hometown of Valdosta. Over the years I came to know more about this organization, and when I was released I went to live in their “whole-way house”, The Refuge of Hope, for nine months. There I was welcomed as family, cared for and nurtured and given a chance to put some money in the bank and get a stable job. Andy and Bonnie Squires, who live on the property with the men housed there, love every man who comes there as their own son.
I got to see the work that went into the Christmas donations from the other side of the fence, and it is a massive undertaking. Truckloads of goods arrived and were separated and packaged. Cookies, chips, soft drinks, soap and those little bottles of lotion were made ready for the chaplains who arrived at the Refuge or met Andy alongside the highway halfway between their prisons and Quitman.
This year ACPM is donating nearly 55,000 Christmas packages to prisoners in Georgia and north Florida. This includes men’s and women’s prisons as well as several youth detention centers.
If you care to donate to this effort I can guarantee that the money will be well spent. It will make someone’s life better the moment they open the package. Because of the poor economy, fewer folks have been giving, so ACPM has gone into their reserves to make purchases. They trust that the shortfall will be provided for, and they have been proven right time after time. These are people who live the message of Matthew 25: “I was in prison and you came to me.”
When I called Bonnie a few days ago, I asked, “What do you want people who read my article to know?” In the background I could hear the men loading up a chaplain’s van. It was a chaotic scene that I am familiar with, and a busy time for everyone at the Refuge. She paused for a few seconds, then said, “Nobody deserves to be forgotten.” These words, so filled with truth, go to the heart of what this season is supposed to be about. So, if you are moved to contribute I offer my thanks and that of those on the other side of the razor wire who are unable to speak for themselves. Your gift will count. There can never be too much of the real Christmas spirit.