For the past year-and-a-half, female inmates at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections have been spending a few hours on Tuesdays stuffing and sewing simple fleece dolls for charity. Over 1,000 of the cuddly dolls have been given to babies and children in need.
The program in Rhode Island’s two women’s prisons wouldn’t be possible without the volunteer leadership of Joy Johnson of Taunton, Mass., a seamstress and active member of Community Covenant Church in Rehoboth, Mass. Joy wanted to combine her love of sewing and crafts with her desire to reach out to women in difficult circumstances. She had some fabric she was looking to donate and learned about a church in Providence that had started a crafts in prison program which had fallen by the wayside. Her idea took off from there. “If I were in prison,” Joy notes, “being a creative person, I’d want to do something creative.”
Joy spends most of her Tuesdays in the basement of first the Dorothea Dix Women’s Minimum Security Facility and then the Gloria McDonald Women’s Awaiting Trial and Medium Security Facility, where she is joined by Dianne Smith, another volunteer from her church. They come with fabric which is pre-cut and partially pre-sewn by a handful of dedicated volunteers back at the church who have joined in the Women Reaching Women outreach group.
The pattern is simple and even those with no sewing experience whatsoever can complete several dolls during the hour-and-a-half weekly sessions. One inmate who has participated since Joy first began the project in June of 2007 says, “Sewing these dolls made me feel like I was home again.” Says Joy, “We provide a place where they can just be women. They can relax and sew in dignity in an environment where they have a clean slate and no expectations and can feel comfortable and safe.”
In addition to the dolls that are donated to various charities around the country, the women are able to make a few dolls each for their own children or loved ones. Volunteers at the church then put them in envelopes with a card Joy designed describing the program and mail them out with the church’s return address on the women’s behalf. “Some women just cry when they find out they can send them to their own kids,” Joy shares. She says she has heard wonderful things about how the inmates’ children have loved receiving the dolls, have taken them to school with them, and how much it has meant for them to receive something handmade by their incarcerated mom, aunt, or grandma.
So far, dolls made by the incarcerated women in Rhode Island have gone to area fire departments, social workers, Ronald McDonald House, Hasbro Children’s Hospital, to children in Iraq where Joy’s son is currently stationed, and to a foster care organization in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, called Brave Heart, which presented them to abused and neglected babies at Christmas. In a thank you letter to the women in the program, Brave Heart’s executive director Dee Robinson wrote, “All contributions are greatly appreciated and help us reach out to children who have been removed from their home due to abuse and neglect. We help them face the transitions, difficult circumstances, and unknowns with more self-confidence.”
The project is a big part of the Community Covenant Church’s outreach focus and has the full support of Pastor Dennis Baril. All the volunteers who work in the program are part of the church and the church and its members provide the funding for the program. Joy put together a booklet of comments from the inmates for a birthday party the church held not long ago to celebrate the anniversary of the program. She says that while it took a while from the time she presented her proposal until the project got off the ground, everyone at the prisons has been supportive and helpful. Warden Carole Dwyer laid the ground rules on what type of needles and scissors could be used, which inmates would be eligible to participate, etc. Joy and Dianne attended a New Employee Orientation required of all new employees, interns and volunteers. They held their first session with inmates and leaders in the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program already in place in Dix and were then invited by the warden to launch the program in the GM Building. A year later, they brought it to Dix on a weekly basis, and now both buildings have regular weekly sessions.
On a recent Tuesday, almost a dozen women chose colorful print fabric scarves to match the solid color bodies, adding their own hints of personality to the basic pattern and piling up their completed dolls by their side. Those who were new to the group were given brief instruction by Joy on how to make the stitches and some of the more experienced in the group helped the newer ones gain confidence.
After spending the afternoon with the women at Dix, Joy drives back to the Rehoboth church where she packages and mails out dolls, replenishes her supplies, and picks up Dianne, who returns in the evening with her to the GM Building. It’s a long day, but a rewarding and enjoyable one for the women who see the impact of their efforts in the faces of the prisoners and the comments from the agencies and children who ultimately receive the dolls.
Anyone who is interested in volunteering or donating materials for the Women Reaching Women outreach is invited to contact Joy Johnson at email@example.com.