Keystone gives to children of prisoners

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 23, 2002

Keystone Ministries Angel Tree coordinator Debra Hartley gets some help from daughter Nicole Hartley, center, and granddaughter Chey Page while wrapping presents to deliver to one of the 300 children who will benefit from the program this Christmas. (The Vicksburg Post/Melanie Duncan)

[12/23/02]Children of people serving time are being given presents for the 10th year as part of a growing ministry in Vicksburg.

The Christmas program, administered by two-year-old Keystone Ministries, began while Keystone director and former Warren County Jail chaplain James Hartley was himself a prisoner. At the time, his wife, Debra, arranged for about 100 local children to receive presents.

“The prisoners can be anywhere in America, but the children have to live in Warren or Claiborne counties,” Debra Hartley said of Keystone Ministries’ Angel Tree program, which is separate from a Salvation Army program of the same name.

This year the number of children receiving presents is expected to reach about 300, most of them with parents who’ve recently been released from prison or jail, Hartley said. The Warren County Sheriff’s Department helps Keystone identify most of the children, Hartley said.

Toys or money to buy them is donated by local organizations and individuals, Hartley said. Many of the churches that contribute do so annually and have for several years, she said.

The gift-giving program is a small part of what Keystone does. Begun in January 2001, the ministry’s main goal1 is reacclimating prisoners to free society and trying to keep them from going back.

The program, which has been based at 1702 Court St., for about a year, began accepting residential participants seven months ago and has already shown some success, James Hartley said.

“On May 15, we began taking people,” he said. “We picked the first person up at (the state penal farm at) Parchman’s gate,” he said. “He was a part of the early-release program. He’s been home (in Tennessee) four weeks. I just talked with his wife last night. He was at an (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting, and his wife was in the grocery store buying groceries.”

The fifth ex-prisoner to move in at Keystone is Rick Davis of Booneville. Also an early-release participant, he filled out the three-page questionnaire required by Keystone and was accepted.

“I’m trying to stay focused and do something positive,” said Davis, who was in jail for embezzlement and earned his early release by cooperating with prison authorities. Davis said he found out about Keystone through a fellow prisoner with whom he was participating in a treatment program for alcoholism. He said he now spends his days helping Keystone in a variety of ways.

“I do what I can for the ministry,” he said of the program, which Hartley said hopes to grow into financial self-sufficiency, but is now also supported by contributions and other enterprises, including proceeds from its thrift shop, 2320 Washington St.

The ministry has recently bought the former Mississippi Hardware building across Speed Street from its current thrift shop and plans to move its retail operation there in the coming months, Hartley said.

Keystone also generates revenue through arrangements like the one it has with Houston Foster, who is not an ex-prisoner but details cars at the ministry in exchange for room and board.

“We hire day-labor,” he said. “We plan to start a grass-cutting crew. And we’re planning a full kitchen, with a deli where people can come in and eat. We could teach them how to work and conduct themselves in the realm of a restaurant atmosphere.”

One fund-raiser Keystone has tried recently did not meet expectations, Hartley said. People who bought raffle tickets this fall for the 2003 Chevrolet Avalanche can expect refunds, he said. “We couldn’t sell them at $35 apiece,” he said.

Davis said he planned to stay at Keystone until he felt more ready to go out on his own. “The freedom feeling hasn’t set in on me yet,” he said of the three days he had spent at Keystone.

“We’ll go out of our way to help someone who’s helping themselves,” Hartley said. “We want to teach these guys how to love everybody instead of being a convict.”