Hermiston Church Gives 2000 Gifts to Prisoners

by Kathy Marson

This is one of two long tables used to load the gift bags for the 2,000 prisoner gifts. (In the foreground left to right are Leigh Payne, Naomi Larkin and Jerry Johnson.)
Beth Thomas and Linda Johnson enjoying this Sabbath afternoon activity.
(Left to right) Paula Oltman, coordinator of the project, and Shirley York are looking over the bags of goodies. (Photos by: Charlotte Engelhart)

Hermiston, Ore., January 29, 2014  -  One day one of the prisoners mentioned “Christmas Behind Bars” to one of the volunteers from the Hermiston Adventist Church. Members from this congregation have an active prison ministry. They took the words of Jesus and the prisoner seriously when they decided to make gifts for 2,000 prisoners at the Two Rivers Correctional Institution.

Guy Oltman is the personal ministries leader at the church and heads up the prison ministry team. Paula, his wife, also works with this ministry. They go one weekend a month to the prison for the Friday and Sabbath afternoon service.

Once the prison ministry group decided to provide the gifts, they applied to the prison for permission to come. Then they began to collect items for the prisoners. They selected books such as Surprised by Love, by Elizabeth Talbot. They gathered granola bars, nuts, candy bars, potato chips and included a free Bible study enrollment card, other cards for free books, puzzles and a letter from the pastor of the Hermiston Church. A local dentist donated many tooth brushes and tooth paste sets.

“We had a number of miracles along the way,” said Paula, who became the gatherer for most of the items. “One member had a grandson who worked at a potato chip factory in Hermiston. Naomi Larkin went to the factory and was told they were running individual bags that week and if anything went wrong they might give a discount on chips. She went back in the next day and was told, ‘you will not believe this, the run we did has a wrinkle on the seam. We are going to give them to you for the prisoners.’” This miracle saved them $1,000.

When Paula went to Walmart, she cleaned out the whole candy bar section. A clerk, Stephanie Vandeman, helped her by bringing in more boxes from the back and when she saw it would take two carts she said, “Let me help you.” She helped Paula through the checkout stand and out to her car.

They put the gift bags together at the Hermiston Junior Academy gymnasium. It took many hours and volunteers to put the items into the almost-grocery-sized paper bags. "It was exciting to see so many volunteers filling the bags," said Paula.

The distribution was on Friday, the 13th of December. “The chaplains had organized things well and we had 40 volunteers,” said Paula. “Two by two they distributed 100 bags to each unit. The inmates lined up and we handed the bags to them. There was a warm response from the prisoners. Some groups applauded the bags."

As Paula was leaving one of the units, an inmate was reading the letter from the pastor and asked her if he could use the address on the letter to send a thank you note or an offering. Following this event the church has received many letters of thanks from the prisoners. Mothers have called the to say they saw a softening of their son’s hearts since this event. Four Bible study requests have come to the church and they see new members attending.

“I was absolutely exhausted when it was over,” said Paula. “The response has been so positive. Our own church members were so blessed.” And the Hermiston church board voted to do the same thing next year. Paula said, “We’ve learned a lot from this experience and I’m sure we will learn more this next year.”

One of the inmates wrote, “You brought light to a dark place.” Please know I will never forget this. Another said in his note that he knew his life was changed and influenced by the generosity of people loving God.

What were Jesus words? He said, “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me” Matthew 25:35-36.