Connecting people in prison with their littlest loved ones on the outside is a catalyst for positive change, and a heartwarming ministry.
Mary Ann is a 76-year-old grandmother with an unusual and inspiring hobby. Seven years ago, she decided to start volunteering in prisons, and the work she’s doing is having a huge impact on vulnerable young children.
After retiring from her career as a teacher about 15 years ago, Mary Ann started going to schools, libraries, and daycare centers to tell stories to kids. She jokingly calls herself a “red-nosed reader,” because she wears a red nose to amuse the little ones.
One day she read an article about a prison ministry program in Missouri called “Story Link.” Volunteers go into prisons to record the voices of inmates reading goodnight stories. The volunteers then send these recordings to the inmates’ kids and grandkids, together with the physical book, so that the children can feel close to their loved one and connect through a story, even from afar.
The article touched her heart. She felt a call inside, and she responded out loud, “Yes, I want to do this, too.” At almost 70 years old, her new adventure began.
Mary Ann works in Idaho, a state where Death Row still exists and where many inmates, like the ones in high-security prisons, can only see relatives and friends through a barrier of glass.
Idaho is a big state with relatively few inhabitants, and prisons are often far from the towns where the inmates’ families live. Visiting their relatives in prison is often an expensive and complex journey. Every phone call is expensive, and that’s when family relationships are not so damaged that phone calls are unhelpful anyway.
After many years, I chose to work again in prisons, and at the training course I met Mary Ann. This smiling grandmother, with a beautiful smile and a gentle voice, shared her story and it touched my heart immediately. I think it’s such a simple and brilliant way to help somebody.
She told me a story that captures the greatness of her work:
“I remember that there was a gentleman, once, who got married a first time, divorced, then married again, before ending up in prison. From his first marriage he had a daughter, but his first wife decided they would not have any relationship with him, especially after he went to prison. At a certain point, years later, he learned his daughter had a child of her own, and that he was now a grandpa. But because she didn’t want her daughter to meet him, he asked her if he could at least record a goodnight story for her. He grabbed one of the books that we provided to send to the family, and recorded the story. When his daughter listened to her own father’s voice, telling a story that her mother used to tell her as a kid, it brought her to tears and she understood in that moment that she wanted to change how things were between them. That story was the starting point of their reconciliation, and when that inmate eventually got out of prison, they had a family reunion and he sent me a photo with his family together. A single recording brought their family back together.”
Sometimes, the simple act of recording a story can make an inmate understand the pain of not being with family in person, and this becomes the catalyst to a process of wanting to change one’s life, upon release and reintegration into society.
As Christians, we know very well that Jesus asks us to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, welcome foreigners, and visit the imprisoned. But the last request is often the most difficult to meet.
We can’t ignore it, however. We know that we are all sinners, and that prisons are places that very much need to see the love of Christ in action.
“I chose to be a clown because I like to see people smiling,” Mary Ann said, “and the reason why I volunteer in prison is to connect who is inside with who is outside, and to give hope to people, in a place where nobody should feel unloved and abandoned.”
Because we are all sinners looking for grace, nobody is lost for redemption, and Christ only wants to save as from our darkness. Thank you, Mary Ann, for your hopeful witness to Christ’s love for each one of us.