‘You gotta be bold  in your Christian faith,’ deputy says

By Tom Maguire | Associate editor

Charitable people can cram a lot into an hour and 40 minutes at Christmastime.

That’s about how long it took to pack goody bags and then distribute them to 500 or so inmates at the Patrick J. Corbett Onondaga County Justice Center in Syracuse.

“Really, those inmates were into it,” said Ellen Golden, visitor advocate for the Jail Ministry of the Brady Faith Center. “They participated, laughed, and I heard that from the other two groups as well.”

Thirty-five to 40 volunteers handled the Dec. 20 distribution; Golden’s group went in singing “Joy to the World” and handed out the little white paper bags with treats. “I’d say the cookies went first,” she said. Also popular were the stamped Christmas cards that the inmates could send out.

It was suggested that such an endeavor was noble-minded.

“Well, I appreciate that but it feels more human-minded to me. Respect,” Golden said.

On Dec. 19, Golden and about 30 others had descended to the jail’s basement to fill the bags. The volunteers lined up at tables arranged in a horseshoe as the Sheriff’s Department pecking order gave way to the packing order. “We try to keep a good variety,” said Keith Cieplicki, Brady’s Jail Ministry coordinator.

The list for each bag: two hot chocolate packs; one Ramen noodle package; one yellow-green apple; one packet with prayer sheet, puzzle sheet, two folded lined paper sheets, and two business envelopes; one stamped Christmas card; one pair of socks; one pen; one address book; two small chocolate bars and two bite-size chocolates; three hard candies; and one bag of three cookies. The items are donated by a lot of churches and various groups.

“I start really preparing in October,” Cieplicki said. “It takes us a total of about three months to get ready. … Over 10,000 items we gotta organize and get together, so … great little project.”

One of the gifts is the prayer sheet that Cieplicki wrote, “31 Days with God.” Day 23’s prayer says: “You are more than an inmate. You are more than your charges. You are more than your cell number.”

Day 29: “When you look out your cell window and dream of being free, look into your soul and know it can be. Your freedom is not tied just to a place. It’s a spirit within. It’s a blessing, a grace.”

And Day 31: “What can you do as you awaken today? Stay faithful and holy and constantly pray.”

Deputy gets ’em rollin’

“Are we ready?” Cieplicki asked his team of packers.

He assigned the starter’s duties to Sheriff’s Deputy Elaine Egan on behalf of her colleague Deputy Douglas Paninski, both of whom represented the custody-administration unit.

The volunteers gather for a photo to celebrate completion of the gift-packing project; they finished the job in only about 40 minutes. “I don’t think it could have gone better,” said Keith Cieplicki, coordinator of the Jail Ministry of the Brady Faith Center.

“Let’s roll!” Deputy Egan said, and immediately a tremendous rustling noise erupted as the white bags crinkled under the shower of treats. It was 30 or 40 minutes of “fun and frolic,” as Deputy Egan called it.

She noted that on the next evening, Jail Ministry volunteers, accompanied by a deputy or a sergeant, would form groups of three and visit each section of the jail for about 15 or 20 minutes.

“And we sing carols, and we give out bags, and do prayer if they are in need of prayer,” Deputy Egan said.

Did she say “prayer”?

She answered: “I said ‘prayer.’ … God is everywhere, and if he says to say it, I say it. … Gotta step out, you gotta be bold in your Christian faith.”

So she knows who the boss is?

Yeah, right to the top; that’s MY top,” she said.

‘She took a bold step’

At the hectic hot chocolate and Ramen noodles station, Paul DeFelice, of St. Augustine Church in Baldwinsville, related that one of his co-volunteers, Ginny Piccirilli, was asked by some of her friends: “Why are you volunteering at a jail ministry, why not do something else?”

“And she took a bold step and said ‘I’m coming here,’ and she’s back,” DeFelice said. “She asked to come back.”

Piccirilli, of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Baldwinsville, explained: “I like giving back to the community and I felt very good after leaving here last year to help out.”

Volunteer packer Colleen Pitts, also of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, said she was enjoying the evening. Her late father was a sheriff’s deputy, so it was interesting to come to the justice center and see where he worked, she said.

Working at the station that plopped tiny flexible pens into the bags were the husband and wife team of Joe and Rose Stoll, from Erwin First United Methodist Church in Syracuse.

“Fourth year doing it,” Joe said. “It’s a highlight every year, and we made new friends here.”

“We’re getting faster every year,” Rose said.

The spiritual factor

Holding very steady amid the frenzy of packing was Father Peter Major, MHM, staffing the sock station. Asked why he participated, he said, “I guess to be in solidarity with the people here, not only in the jail but here at the tables. We’re all family here working for another family in solidarity, like Christmas — solidarity.” He said he trusted that God would touch the inmates’ hearts.

Also working at the sock station was Victoria Moore, bail coordinator/office manager for the Jail Ministry.

She said, “I love doing this every year. … As far as my holiday, I think it helps me spiritually. Yes. It really does.”

Asked how the inmates react, she said: “Ahhh, they love it. … I think this really gives them hope. It really does. They look forward to this.”

“It’s a tradition at this point,” said Bill Cuddy, the spiritual minister for the Jail Ministry. He’s been holding the event for 44 years.

“We always thought it was hard for people at Christmastime to miss home,” he said. “And we didn’t know if it’d go over. From the first instance we started this, people got outside themselves, got into singing the carols, sharing the gifts, laughter.”

Golden, the visitor advocate for Jail Ministry, said the inmates “react very enthusiastically, some with sadness. You’ll see tears, because they recognize that they won’t be with their families and friends for Christmas; and they have memories.” She has seen inmates sit right down and write a letter with the stationery supplied by the volunteers.

“Every human being deserves to be uplifted,” Cuddy said.

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