By Will Shaw
On a recent Saturday, nine students from the Newman Center at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale made the 130-mile trip to Belleville in order to take part in prison ministry. The effort they were supporting was the “St. Eugene Care Pack” project which has been providing care packages for returning citizens of the Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center (SWICC) every month since 2010.
National Director of Mission Enrichment, Geri Furmanek, gathers supplies ranging from hygiene products to socks and towels – “basics” to go inside each backpack. 30 back packs are given out each month to individuals being released from SWICC in order to facilitate their successful return to society. Ordinarily, the packing of the backpacks is handled by Ms. Furmanek and her assistant, Brenda Johnston, but this month there was abundant help!
The leader of the group, Jennifer Kramper, is a campus ministry intern at the Newman Center. She explained that the Student Ministry Team seeks out service projects for outreach and they had been looking for “under-served” projects that are appropriate for the Church’s “Year of Mercy.” Jennifer heard about the project through Franciscan Fr. Chris Reuter, who is Prison Ministry Coordinator for the Diocese of Belleville. From there, Jennifer got in touch with Geri Furmanek who was pleased to welcome the students to her office on the grounds of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows. “The generosity of these students to assist with this outreach makes one confident that the future of the Church is in good hands!”
Forestry major, Andy Foy, Chairman of Outreach at the Newman Center, came up with the idea of doing prison ministry, in part because, “… the students don’t get a chance to do that.” Maggie McGowan agreed that prison ministry, “Is a forgotten one. The stereotypes of prisoners makes them socially unsympathetic, but they still deserve human dignity.” Providing basic necessities to these individuals who essentially leave the institution with just the shirts on their backs makes sense to Maggie: “I forget about needing the basics…I totally connect that these are things you just assume will always be there, providing these backpacks allows them to focus on getting back into society and less on day-to-day needs.”
The students spent about three hours preparing, and then packing the items into thirty St. Eugene Care Packs. Their work day began with lunch provided by Mission Enrichment and ended with a tour of The Shrine with Associate Director, Fr. David Uribe, OMI.
Prison ministry is an Oblate tradition going back to St. Eugene de Mazenod and it served as Geri Furmanek’s inspiration for the effort. The items that go inside of the backpacks are all donations from friends, family, co-workers, Oblates and Oblate Associates. The items have been cleared by Internal Affairs of the SWICC and the total cost of each backpack is estimated at $50.