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Pennsylvania women take ministry to prison

 


 

March 16, 2004

By Suzy Keenan*

VALLEY FORGE, Pa. (UMNS) - Children of imprisoned mothers can now hear their mother's voices on tape, thanks to a project begun by a United Methodist woman at the Berks County Prison.

Althea Harmon, a member of United Methodist Women and Holy Cross United Methodist Church in Reading, Pa., heard about the "Mother's Voice" project at a 1995 workshop presented by Gerald Weaver, former executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.

With the help of the Berks County Prison Society, Harmon proposed the idea to the Berks County Prison warden. "He was excited because he had so many churches and individuals who wanted to come in and preach to the inmates, but the difference was that this would be a ministry that meets a need and strengthens the relationship between a mother and her children," she explained.

As the Albright-Lebanon-Reading District United Methodist Women's social action coordinator, Harmon obtained financial support from other women's units in the area to set up the Mother's Voice program. "This was a ministry I could start in our prison - a way for mothers in prison to stay connected to their children - and have all UMW units be a part of it" by contributing to the purchase of books and tapes, she said. "At that time, it cost $2 - $1 for the book and $1 for the tape."

Mother's Voice allows each incarcerated mother of young children to record a storybook and a personal message. A prison society staff member or volunteer visits weekly to help each mother tape the story.

The books and cassette tapes are delivered to the children, who can hear their own mothers' voices each day. In 2003, Mother's Voice enabled 288 mothers to record stories and brief personal messages of love and encouragement for 529 children.

Christine Reichardt, director of volunteer programming for the Berks County Prison Society, received numerous messages from caretakers of children of imprisoned mothers on the life-changing effect of the Mother's Voice program.

"The grandmother of one little girl wrote to us to say that when her granddaughter heard her tape, she squealed, 'Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,' and carried the book around with her for days, even when the tape wasn't playing," she said. "The tape made her feel as though her mother was still with her, and at least she knew her mother was still loving and missing her."

One mother told Reichardt "that prior to her incarceration she often let her child down. Her child's response to hearing the story on tape made her realize that something as simple as taking a few moments to read to her child was a huge step in renewing the bond between them-something she would definitely continue to do when she was released."

Harmon regularly volunteers her time for Mother's Voice. "When I go in, I help the mother to read the book, helping her with literacy," she said. "The program, it seems, not only enables mother and child to maintain a bond during incarceration, but has become a good parenting habit the mother can use to continue strengthening their bond upon release.

"When a mother makes a tape, we give her time to make a special message at the end of the tape: 'I love you; be good; Mommy will be home soon.' It helps a lot of mothers who want to make a difference in their children's lives from prison."

Along with the support of the district's United Methodist Women's units, additional help for Mother's Voice has come from Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference Peace With Justice grants, the Berks County Bar Association, Church Women United of Reading-Berks County, the United Methodist Women's Permanent Trust Fund and the Prison Society general funds.

More information is available by calling Harmon at (610) 678-6080 or writing to altheaandjoseph@msn.com.

*Keenan is director of communications for the United Methodist Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference.  News media can contact Linda Bloom at (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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