Christmas was usually a good time for me, when I was in prison.
One of the nicest things was getting packages from home. My mom, sister, or someone else would be able to send me a cake, candy, nuts and other goodies I couldn’t get during the rest of the year. Besides these packages we would also usually get a “Happy Sack” from the authorities. These would be grocery bags filled with various things that came from the inmate store and from donations. Some guys didn’t have anyone to send them anything, and for others their families couldn’t afford the cost of the food and postage. For these guys, the happy sack was the only bright spot of the season.
Sometime in the mid 1990s, I began to notice a bottle of hand lotion and a bar of soap in the Happy Sack with a sticker that said “Azalea City Prison Ministries.” The label stood out to me because the ministry was located in Valdosta, Ga., where I grew up. I didn’t give much thought to who was sending the material, and I would usually give away the pamphlets that often accompanied the packages.
In 2006, a friend of mine went to a private halfway house called the Refuge of Hope, in Quitman, Ga. This was near Valdosta, so I began checking on the program there. A little research revealed it was part of Azalea City Prison Ministries (AZPM). After going through the interview process I was accepted to the program there, and with their support I was paroled in December of 2009.
There was no way I could have known the world of love and caring I was about to enter, a world largely the creation of Andy and Bonnie Squires. They, along with Grady Williams, had begun the Refuge a decade before. They had been involved in the church, and particularly in prison ministry, for most of their lives; Bonnie since she was a girl, and Andy since the late 1970s when he began AZPM. After so many years of bringing the Gospel to prisoners they were well aware of the dearth of support and housing for parolees, and all felt called by God to do something about it.
Over the nine months that I lived there, I learned a lot about how much work went into delivering those bars of soap and bottles of lotion I had enjoyed for so many years. I was surprised to learn that they provided items to more than 50,000 prisoners, including kids in youth prisons. Pallets of supplies came in all year, and semi trailers were loaded in preparation for the work in December. The men living at the Refuge worked repackaging and labeling the items.
This year, Andy told me they were sending soap, lotion, shampoo, Chapstick, Snickers bars, Pop Tarts and other goodies to most prisoners in Georgia, the residents of youth detention centers in Thomasville, Waycross, and Americus, Georgia, and the residents of boys’ and girls’ youth prisons in Greenville, Fla. This, from a program that started at the Lowndes County, Ga., jail with 85 inmates 20 years ago.
When I asked Andy what he would like for people to know about the Christmas efforts of AZPM he told me about a letter he received a few years ago. It was from a prisoner in Georgia. He told them that during the Christmas season he had become despondent. He was depressed and lonely and tired of the life he was leading in prison. He had finally decided he wanted to kill himself. Around that time he got his Happy Sack, and inside he found a piece of paper with a message on it. “Give God control of your life. He can do more with it than you can.”
This piece of paper, and the goodies in the bag, were proof to him that he was indeed loved. Someone had taken the time to care for him, to show him some love.
Matthew 25:36 says, “Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me.” Andy, Bonnie, Grady, and many others who support them bring this verse to life in the harsh world of prison life. May they be blessed by God and by us.