I have seen Santa's workshop and it isn't in the North Pole. It is located at 101 West 5th, also known as the Lane County Jail.
I was nervous at first, approaching the ominous brick building, its walls were strung in barbed wire. At the entrance there were visitors bundled against the sharp December air. One older man was wearing a cap that said, "Dad." It instantly reminded me that every person in this place somewhere has a family.
The plastic bags pulled on my fingers, tugged down with the weight of cards inside. Once inside the lobby, I spoke to an officer behind double thick Plexiglas who buzzed me in. I stood by as a large steel door slid open, and then stepped into a small space where a second steel door slid open as the first one closed. I was completely sealed in. There were no windows, only concrete walls and florescent lighting.
The heavy metallic click of the door latching behind me was a very startling, but then I was greeted by a cheery, mustached face that introduced himself as Joe Pishioneri--Santa with green suspenders. He lead me to a large, open room with hundreds of boxes each labeled by floor and wing. In each box was a white paper sandwich bag that had been decorated by children with markers. There were about a dozen volunteers stuffing the bags.
Joe gave me a little tour explaining that each bag had been colored on by school children and the items, such as candy canes, chocolates, apples and tiny New Testaments going in the bags were all donated by local businesses and organizations. Two volunteers were busy peeling tiny stickers off each apple. The prisoners could use them to post things on their walls, so they had to be removed.
A volunteer came and took the bags I was carrying and incorporated them into the production line that had formed around the perimeter of the room. She began quickly unpacking the cards and stacking them for distribution. It had been a slightly daunting task getting all of them signed.
I had originally heard about the Jail and Prison ministries earlier in the fall at a missionary conference. As an adjunct instructor at Eugene Bible College, I am always looking for ways to get the students more involved with local ministries.
A few weeks ago, I had the idea for doing the Christmas cards for the inmates, but the idea quickly dropped out of my mind as soon as it entered. Then, a week ago, my boyfriend and I were discussing how hard it was to be away from family on the holidays. He said, "I wonder how prisoners feel?" Then the idea rushed back into my head. I figured I needed to act on it, rather than let the idea fade away again.
Since I only had one week of classes before the holidays, I called up the volunteers I had spoken with before and they gave me the number of the man at the jail in charge of that sort of thing. I called him the next day and he said that it would be great, but that we needed to be sure that every inmate received the same thing. We would have to have all 500 hundred of them done by next Monday, the day that the bags would be assembled. I caught my breath, the whole school had only 145 students. It sounded impossible, but I said, "Yes."
We barely made the deadline. It would have taken less time, except that everyone wanted to write personalized messages in each one. Signing cards to inmates reminded us all that we are truly blessed and what the spirit of Christmas is really about.
As I waited for the vault doors to let me out into the fresh air of the free world, I wished that others could have seen what I saw, and so that is why I am writing this--to remind myself, and those of us on the outside, that there are other who will be spending their holidays behind bars and that we should be thankful for the freedoms we enjoy and how we can do our part to bless others.