The day 26-year-old Kay Kay was released from jail after serving six months, she walked into the lobby with nothing but the clothes on her back, a ride, a little money she made working in the commissary, and the hope she could start a new and better life.
When her caseworker, Jen Brzezinski, greeted her with a heavy backpack, Kay Kay (she declined to use her real name) was thrilled. As soon as she got into Brzezinski’s car, she opened it to find all sorts of necessities to help her start that new life.
“I had nothing, just a little bit of money,” Kay Kay said. “After I opened it, I knew I’d basically be relying on that bag at first. There was shampoo and conditioner, socks, personal hygiene items, everything I needed to get started. The first things I used was the notebook and pen to write about how I was feeling. I discovered poetry while I was incarcerated.”
Without sharing details, Kay Kay explained that when she returned from the South after about two years, she learned there was a warrant for her arrest. She had been on probation before she left and hadn’t shown up for a court appearance, and though there were circumstances beyond her control that prevented her from appearing, she said she hadn’t fulfilled her obligation.
Love In A Backpack
Kay Kay received the backpack because St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ashfield had set up a program, Love In A Backpack, with the jail for women being released back into the community.
Brzezinski, a re-entry caseworker for women at the Franklin County jail, met with Mary Link, one of the coordinators of the program, after Link told her the church had received a grant and wanted to use it to help women transitioning from incarceration.
“I expected she was talking about a small pack with a few items,” Brzezinski said. “She came with this huge backpack filled with lots of items, and it was just incredible.
“There’s a huge need, and the women who receive one are so grateful,” she said.
Brzezinski said when women leave the jail, some transition into treatment programs, while others go to a shelter or sober house or home to their families, all depending on why they are in jail and whether there are conditions set by the court attached to their release.
It’s difficult when women are released, because there are waiting lists for low-income and subsidized housing, and it can be hard to find work, she said.
“We try to make sure they have housing, food and clothing when they leave,” she said. “They don’t have a lot. They’re headed into the unknown, and that can be really scary.”
She said some women spend as little at 90 days in jail, while others spend six months or more. But they all face barriers that can easily lead to re-incarceration if they’re not careful or they fall back into old habits.
“We spend a lot of time working prior to their release on connecting them with community resources,” Brzezinski said. “We develop a relationship with each of them. It’s hard for some of them to trust anyone. We build a rapport.”
Each backpack also includes a stuffed animal, which Brzezinski said comforts either the women or their children, if they are reunited with them after release. She said for some women, a backpack and the support they get “changes everything,” and they end up doing some wonderful things with their lives.
Each woman also receives a handwritten note from a 90-year-old woman who is a member of the Ashfield church and volunteers to write the inspirational notes, letting women know that someone cares about them and their journey.
Expanding the program
The church recently received a Ministry Development Grant for $5,000 from the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts so that it can expand its Love In A Backpack program, because there is a greater need than what it can do at this point.
Link said the church, with the help of others, has a goal of 80 or more backpacks per year, to be split between the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee and the local jail. Link said the idea came from a church member’s daughter who participated in a national study that helped inspire the project.
“We first went to Chicopee with the idea — there wasn’t a lot of support for women there,” Link said. “It was really tough for them to transition back into their communities. That was the beginning.”
Link said the theme of the backpack program is “Reading, Writing, Reflection,” so women receive a book, notebook and pen.
“The program continues to grow and evolve every day,” Link said. “We want to expand, but we need the help of others. This little church with a big heart does a lot, but we can’t do everything. We’ll be doing some outreach to other churches this next year.”
Link said the church also asks the women being released from jail for ideas about what would help the most if included in the backpack. She said it’s sad, but many of the incarcerated women have rarely, if ever, received anything from anyone without strings attached.
She said once a recipient wrote on one of the note cards provided her, “I just wanna thank you for the wonderful backpack. I had left jail in Greenfield and went to the program in Ware with absolutely nothing besides the clothes on my back. The backpack made me feel a lot more better, especially being all the way out here, away from my family with not much money, and far from my children.”
An initial grant three years ago from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts helped the church launch the social ministry project after members became aware of the need for personal care items for the women. St. John’s started small to learn about what items were needed most and how to organize donations and volunteers to assemble the backpacks.
“The contents in these backpacks are a tremendous assistance to many women who are often leaving incarceration with few financial, emotional or spiritual support systems,” said Mary Quinn, who works with incarcerated women in Chicopee. “They appreciate the contents and that members of their community are caring for them at a very overwhelming and vulnerable time in their lives.”
Thirty-one backpacks were provided in the first year, and that grew to 45 last year thanks to the involvement of neighboring churches and area businesses, Link said.
She said St. John’s hope is to move toward a coordinating role with many partners — churches, local groups, individuals and businesses — filling backpacks to help meet the women’s needs and grow the project in a way that is sustainable.
“The project isn’t going to bring a systemic change, but it makes a critical difference during a fragile time, ” Link said.
Franklin County Sheriff Chris Donelan said the backpacks are a sign of care and compassion. Transitioning out of jail is a fragile period, he said, and many women are moved to tears seeing such a tangible show of support from the community.
“It may seem simple, but it is a powerful gesture that happens at just the right moment,” he said.
Kay Kay’s transition
Born in Northampton, Kay Kay grew up there and then moved with her family to Holyoke and later to Greenfield. She said her childhood was “not the best.”
When she was released from jail Dec. 18, 2018, Brzezinski took her to Clinical Support Options’ crisis respite house. She now has custody of her 2-year-old son and lives in a low-income, two-bedroom apartment in Oak Courts, where she said she couldn’t be happier. She has her HiSET and hopes to take courses at Greenfield Community College. She’d like to work with vulnerable populations.
“I was given such a gift,” she said. “I only want to do the same for other people someday.”
Where to donate
Items for the backpacks can be dropped off at the church on South Street in Ashfield, while monetary donations can be sent to St. John’s Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 253, Ashfield, MA 01330. Write “Backpack Project” on the memo line.
To get involved, contact Mary Link at 413-628-4695 or email her at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit stjohnsashfield.org.