Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. – Hebrews 13:3
The United Methodist Church is a connectional body, and those connections proved invaluable during West Ohio’s recent COVID-19 Reentry Kit Challenge. Reentry Kits are a modified version of an UMCOR hygiene kit, adding shampoo, hand sanitizer, a face mask, and an encouraging note, and providing those returning to the community from prison with the means to protect themselves and their neighbors from COVID-19.
The Reentry Kit concept began with a West Ohio staff member who attended four online UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) webinars, which brought together disaster coordinators and volunteers from across the U.S. to exchange ideas about how their ministries were adapting during this challenging time. In one webinar, someone mentioned that their Conference was providing masks to local prisons; in another, a participant talked about giving hygiene kits to returning citizens.
Taking these ideas to the All In Community (AIC) team – West Ohio’s ministry that serves justice-involved individuals and families – was the natural next step. As it turned out, Reba Collins, West Ohio’s AIC Consultant, had already been contacted by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) to find out if All In Community might be able to provide masks for prisoners being released back into the community. When Reba asked if ODRC would want health kits for returning citizens in addition to masks, the concept of a COVID-19 Reentry Kit was born.
“Through All In Community, we had been looking for an opportunity to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in a tangible way that fulfills our AIC mission of restoring hope and providing healing in lives involved in the criminal justice system,” Reba recalled. “When we were asked by ODRC for assistance, we felt it was an opportunity to live out our mission through the core value of collaboration within the connection by partnering with WOC Disaster Response and the United Methodist Women.”
By bringing on partners in the West Ohio Disaster Response network and United Methodist Women (UMW), the project expanded its reach exponentially, working with groups already attuned to mission and service projects. Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, individuals and groups around the Conference rallied to take up the cause of providing health kits and masks to returning citizens.
“It was not difficult to put out this challenge to women who live mission,” said Paula Nourse, mission coordinator for West Ohio UMW. “They graciously accepted the challenge, and the results are the fruits of their labor. I applaud United Methodist Women on a job well done.”
Churches and district offices around the Conference served as collection sites, allowing groups and individuals to drop off kits nearby instead of driving them to Columbus. West Ohio’s Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, Jeff Walker, and District disaster coordinators then consolidated all of the kits at a single location in each district. From there, an ODRC representative was able to collect the kits for distribution at one of 10 local prisons: Ross, Chillicothe, Noble, Southeastern, Dayton, Warren, Allen/Oakwood, Lebanon, Toledo and the Ohio Reformatory for Women.
In addition to partnering with groups across West Ohio, the Reentry Kit project benefitted from its connection with UMCOR, which provided 324 hygiene kits from Eastbrook Mission Barn in Pennsylvania and 1,000 face masks from the UMCOR depot in Decatur, AL. All in all, the COVID-19 Reentry Kit project saw the completion of 2,393 full Reentry Kits, plus an additional 2,478 face masks, thanks to the generosity of 65 different churches and groups throughout the Conference. “Hallelujah. Jesus the felon condemned to death is rejoicing,” remarked Bishop Gregory V. Palmer.
To the many churches, groups, and individuals who supported this project with kits, masks, supplies, finances, time, and prayers, we are grateful, as are the returning citizens who will benefit from your hard work and generosity.
“We have men and women returning from our facilities to every community in Ohio, and with the pandemic, the challenges they face are magnified and resources are even more limited,” stated Tim Buchanan, ODRC Office of Reentry. “By collaborating with faith partners, we hope to provide those returning with a form of safeguard so there is one less concern that he or she might have upon their return to our communities. I cannot express my appreciation enough for your willingness to partner with ODRC and for providing a sense of hope to those coming home.”
A list of churches and groups who participated in the COVID-19 Reentry Kit project can be found here. If your church/group is not listed, that means we did not find a packing slip in the kits you contributed. Please email mgrace [at] wocumc.org so we can recognize your group!