Holiday gifts for the incarcerated, a small gesture with a big impact: ‘They need to know people care about them’

Congregants of the evangelical Willow Creek Community Church assembled just over 1,000 gift bags for inmates Sunday in the South Loop.

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Volunteers prepare gift packs with snacks and reading material for the incarcerated across Illinois, at Willow Creek Community Church in the South Loop, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022.

Volunteers prepare gift packs with snacks and reading material for the incarcerated across Illinois on Sunday at Willow Creek Community Church in the South Loop.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

In a South Loop congregation’s basement, parishioners scuttled from one table to another after Sunday’s service, assembling holiday gift packets for people in jail and prison.

It’s a small gesture that can make a big impact to people in prison during the holidays, members of the Willow Creek Community Church say.

“I understand, personally, the importance of being remembered,” said member Pamela Huggins. “People who are alone and isolated, I really want them to know they are remembered.”

Her son’s friend “went down the wrong path” and is incarcerated, she said. She speaks with him regularly and knows the importance of the gift packets.

Pamela Huggins packs finished bags into a box after volunteers make bags with snacks and reading material to handout to the incarcerated across Illinois at Willow Creek Community Church in the South Loop, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022.

Pamela Huggins packs finished bags into a box after volunteers make bags with snacks and reading material to hand out to the incarcerated across Illinois on Sunday at Willow Creek Community Church.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

“It’s a big thing. The man I know told me the significance of receiving the snacks, receiving the literature, the puzzles, the games. It’s very important,” Huggins said.

Congregants of the evangelical Willow Creek Community Church assembled just over 1,000 gift bags for inmates Sunday at 1347 S. State St.

Each pack contains a Christmas card, treats and an “Armor Book” containing puzzles, art, poems, inspirational stories and devotionals.

Across the megachurch’s six other Chicago-area locations, they will prepare 55,000 gift packs for incarcerated people this holiday season. The packing event gets help from other organizations. In total, the groups will send packs to 82,400 incarcerated people in 14 states. The program has donated more than 500,000 packs over the past decade.

Volunteers in the South Barrington-based church’s prison and jail ministry began the annual “hope packs.”

Pastor Thomas Anderson Jr. chats with volunteers as they prep gift packs to hand out to the incarcerated across Illinois at Willow Creek Community Church in the South Loop, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022.

Pastor Thomas Anderson Jr. chats with volunteers as they prepare gift packs for the incarcerated on Sunday.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

The church hosts the annual event to help incarcerated people as a way to manifest the church’s values of compassion and fighting for justice, pastor Thomas Anderson Jr. said.

“Every year, they are isolated from families, isolated from loved ones. And we know you’re not defined by your mistakes. This is a little token of our love for them,” Anderson said.

More than 29,000 people are currently incarcerated in Illinois prisons, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. That number is significantly lower than the nearly 49,000 people in prison in 2013, the highest count IDOC had ever recorded.

That number does not include the thousands of people housed in county jails, federal lockups and juvenile detention centers. More than 5,400 people are locked up in Cook County Jail.

“The idea is to give them a gift and let them know that even now, while they might feel lonely, they are really not and we will try to be with them,” Anderson said.

One inmate reinvented himself after he received one of the “hope packs” years ago, Anderson said.

“It was so transformational for him. He is now a prison chaplain in another state. And he has brought the whole packs idea to that state to try to impact more people,” Anderson said.

Every incarcerated person in Illinois will get a packet for Christmas, said Katlyn Terpstra, operations manager for the church’s compassion and justice team. Some packs will go to newly released people at reentry centers.

The gift pack event is just one of the church’s many programs to help people in prison, Terpstra said. The church has a reentry program, job fairs with second-chance employers and a pen pal program.

“This is a great way to get our whole community and church involved, and to understand a little more about our prisons, jails and the system,” she said.

Volunteer Jennifer Otten teaches sixth grade in Humboldt Park. Many of her students’ parents are incarcerated, she said.

“They need to know people care about them,” Otten said. “I know it makes a difference.”

Jennifer Otten packs finished bags into a box after volunteers make bags with snacks and reading material to hand out to the incarcerated across Illinois at Willow Creek Community Church in the South Loop, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022.

Jennifer Otten packs finished bags into a box after volunteers make bags with snacks and reading material to hand out to incarcerated individuals across the state.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

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