Mass. church ministry ‘Love in a backpack’ helping women released from prison

Backpacks with supplies for women who have just left prison are gathered by a ministry at St. John's Episcopal Church of Ashfield, Massachusetts.
Backpacks with supplies for women who have just left prison are gathered by a ministry at St. John's Episcopal Church of Ashfield, Massachusetts. | Mary Link

A ministry led by a Massachusetts congregation has been helping former female inmates begin a new chapter of their lives by providing them with backpacks full of supplies upon their release.

St. John's Episcopal Church of Ashfield has been overseeing a ministry known as “Love in a Backpack” for the past three years with the goal of ensuring that women recently released from prison receive basic necessities.

Each backpack has three bags of items: one bag is filled with personal care and toiletries, a second bag contains food and water, and a third bag includes a Bible and a personal note of encouragement.  

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Mary Link, who helps to lead the ministry, told The Christian Post on Monday that the project has “deepened and grown over the years.”

“We have experienced the joy of doing God's work through our hands, serving the women most in need during a fragile and scary transition time,” Link said. “Several other churches and groups have partnered with us each year, helping us increase the number of backpacks we can pull together to provide for the women. Some partners just collect packs or toiletries, others fill three or more whole packs.”

Link noted that in the first year they gave out 32 backpacks. In 2018 and again this year they provided more than 40. Next year, they are planning to increase the distribution to 80.

St. John's Episcopal Church of Ashfield, Massachusetts.
St. John's Episcopal Church of Ashfield, Massachusetts. | Dee Brochu

“We are continuing this outreach to gain more partners and donors so that enough packs can be provided to meet the needs of the more than 80 women who are released each year,” she explained.

Love in a Backpack came in response to the church finding out through research that oftentimes former inmates lack basic items when transitioning, including food and cleaning supplies.

The church applied for and received a $10,000 grant through the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts to help launch the project.  

When the church group contacted the local Franklin County Sheriff's Department about their ministry proposal, they learned that there was a need specifically for supplies for former female inmates, as another local project already existed for men.

The ministry works with women released from the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee and the Franklin County House of Correction in Greenfield.

Link told CP that the backpacks make an impact. She recently met with some of the women who received them and said the “expressions of gratitude” from the former inmates “are amazing.”

“With each pack we include a cover letter and a handwritten note card that lets them know that although we may never meet, our small parish is praying for them and wishing them success, along with the practical items we hope are helpful,” Link said.

“Of the women who write thank you notes to us, they share how much that note, the prayers, and faith we have in them means to them.”

The ministry has also worked with a local charity known as Transition from Jail to Community, which will be helping with the backpack project with a “backpack filling party” in February 2020.

St. John’s Episcopal Church will also hold a conference next March on the issue of helping former inmates adjust to life outside of prison, Link told CP.

“Part of our goal is to increase awareness, compassion, and inspire others to take action as we have — either partnering with us on backpacks or finding their own callings,” she said.

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