ASHFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – With the help of the St. John’s Church in Ashfield, the Love in a Backpack program filled 25 backpacks for women inmates about to enter the community.

The Love in a Backpack program started to fill backpacks in 2017 and is now in its sixth year. After the backpacks were filled this year, they were then blessed in St. John’s Church.

There are 100 to 150 donated items inside each given backpack. According to Love in a Backpack Project Coordinator Mary Link, each item is either practical or brings encouragement and support.

The following are the items found in each bag:

  • Personal care items such as shampoo, conditioners, soap, deodorant, towel, and washcloth
  • Various nonperishable snack foods
  • Bottle of water
  • Reading and writing reflection items (journal, pens, and a book)
  • Doll companion

Mary Link explained why the doll is a special piece to the backpack, “to be present with the women, a lot of them are also mothers so they can choose to give their doll to their child if that’s what they choose to do with it, so they have something to give.”

An additional item inside the backpacks is heart-shaped squeeze balls to help ease any stress inmates may feel when exiting the jail and starting a new chapter in their lives. The squeeze balls read: ‘Breathe in peace, you can do this! We are cheering for you.’

A personal handwritten note is also given to them. Link says, “it lets them know that even though we may never meet, there’s a small group of people in a church that are praying for them and wishing them the best and hoping for a successful transition in their new life.”

In recognition of St. John’s Church 200th anniversary, the Love in a Backpack program put out the goal of filling 200 backpacks. “What we hope to do is fill 100 backpacks this year, we’ve already gotten 50 and 100 next year,” said Susan Todd.

The program first began after, St. John’s Church Co-Senior Warden, Susan Todd was influenced by one of her daughter’s work experiences. Todd’s daughter works in DC and had been doing a project with the Department of Justice on criminal justice reform. Her daughter had seen halfway houses and it was like for people with criminal records or drug abuse tendencies living in these institutes. Those that end up living there, are to learn how to integrate back into society’s norms, but they didn’t have hygiene kits or IDs.

When Todd heard her daughter talk about hygiene kits, she thought the Love in a Back program could do it. Todd explained how the Church had already been involved with collecting items before for refugee groups and thought they could also do it for prisoners’ in Franklin County Jail. Funding was then raised through the Community foundation of western Massachusetts grant to make the project what it is now.

Link explains why the program’s focus has always been to do backpacks, “there was less support for women generally and so we went down and met with sister Mary Quinn who was doing the release work and other support work in western Mass Correctional Facility in Chicopee.” Quinn had been involved in the planning and the idea, in the first couple of years all the backpacks had gone to the Chicopee Correctional Facility until the Franklin County Jail was able to open a wing for the women.

“There’s only a thin line between those who are in jail and those who are not. We’re frail mortals and I think the more we can remember that, the easier it will be for us to make it easier for anybody who is coming into the community.”

St. John’s Church Co-Senior Warden, Susan Todd

The church has delivered all backpacks to the Franklin County jail, to give woman inmates that fresh new start.