This story is the second in the new “Best Practices” series from the American Association’s Prison Ministry Committee. Click here to read part one.
Grace Dawgert, DM, did not allow restrictions at Lakawanna County Jail to stop her from helping its inmates. Together with the non-profit Outreach Center and funding from the Hawk Family Foundation, she developed the “100 Backpacks” program.
Unable to continue teaching GED English and writing classes due to program closures, Grace turned her focus to the newly released. Former prisoners rejoin society with the same clothes they once wore when they began their sentences. Grace thought of what she would want if she were in the same position.
Together with Jane Augustine, Outreach’s Program Director, she made a list of personal hygiene items and household goods to be contained inside of a black backpack.
Everything inside of the ‘Welcome Back’ heavy duty, canvas knapsack is name brand and top quality. Each backpack contains regular sizes of the following:
- Nail clippers/Disposable Razors (for men)
- Shaving Cream
- Laundry Sheets, and
- Dish Detergent
Grace also became an expert at sourcing household name brands for less. She also learned when one buys well-made 100% cotton towels, blankets and durable knapsacks in bulk – one receives a better deal. It turned out less expensive to buy a quantity of 150 than 100. She sourced all of the items carefully through Amazon and dollar stores. It bears mentioning that as Grace checked out with over six hundred items at the local Dollar Store, another shopper became curious. This shopper had a cleaning services business and was open to contacting the Outreach Center as a potential future employer for the newly released.
The last remaining items for the backpack include a letter and a prayer card. The laminated card contains the Order of Malta’s Prison Ministry Prayer. The letter welcomes the knapsack’s recipient back to Scranton.
As a teacher inside of Lakawanna County Jail, Grace has heard too many times that prisoners do not believe themselves worthy of God’s love. The emotional burden of unworthiness, she believes, can be lightened with a knapsack containing comforting necessities for self care.
Twelve Order of Malta volunteers, including David and Ann Marie Hawk, are scheduled to assemble the backpacks this summer. They will remain at the Center and be distributed, one at a time, when newly freed individuals come to the Outreach Center.
Jane Augustine expressed gratitude for Grace’s advocacy over the last five years, Order of Malta volunteers’ dedication, and the Hawk Family Foundation. Undoubtedly, Grace Dawgert’s best practice is not giving up. Jane added that her compassion is also essential for eliminating barriers and reducing the stigma of incarceration and said, “The backpacks will provide a sense of belonging as individuals move towards rebuilding lives and into a brighter future.”