Easter tradition aims to bring hope to those in jail

By Melissa Vlach

Volunteers gathered midway through Lent in what has become an annual Archdiocese of San Francisco tradition in preparation for Easter. They spent the day writing cards and preparing goody bags that will be distributed in the San Francisco jails.

The small but mighty group was able to accomplish the work in one day on March 20 thanks to the hundreds of cards received from local schools and faith formation programs as part of the Cards of Mercy project. Each lovingly created card included beautiful artwork and a touching message for the men and women inside the jails. Participating students ranged from kindergarten through high school.

The adult volunteers added additional messages before sorting the snacks into individual gift bags.

“I enjoyed trying to keep my mind on saying the right thing and keeping it simple, ” shared Mary Jo Schymeinsky a first-time volunteer with the project.

Julio Escobar, Archdiocese of San Francisco Restorative Justice Ministry coordinator, explained that this type of project has benefits for those who complete it as well as for those in custody.

“Prison ministry teaches deep spiritual lessons, such as how to repent, forgive, how to restore, and the need for prayer, remembering that God does all the work,” he said. “The Easter cards and treats project plants seeds of our faith as we celebrate this important occasion with God, going beyond bars.”

Students who make cards are given a set of instructions to follow and can use their own creativity to make them unique. The handmade cards featured springtime images of flowers and greenery, crosses, Easter eggs, and other bright and cheerful designs. Many of the messages contained Scripture passages along with personalized messages, and some included jokes or questions.

Catherine Vollert, eighth grade teacher and religion coordinator at St. Anne School in San Francisco, had her students participate this year as a Lenten activity. She said that they haven’t had a chance to do much service related to the imprisoned.

“I think this project enhanced their understanding of faith by having them look beyond themselves and to serve those most in need of compassion. I was able to have a conversation with the class about Restorative Justice and how certain individuals can learn from their past,” she said.

Rachel DeNardi, youth minister at St. Veronica Church in South San Francisco, led her confirmation candidates in the project. Prior to making the cards, they had discussions about who the recipients might be, imagining their ages, backgrounds, and experiences of incarceration, she said.

“This project really teaches empathy for others even if you don’t really know the receiver personally or their personal situation first hand,” she commented.  “I hope they also see their potential to not only participate in service projects, but to be inspired to take the lead on future projects as they become adults.”

The cards and snacks will be distributed throughout the jails and may go to individuals of any faith or no faith. The goal is to send a message of love and mercy to those incarcerated. A common theme throughout the project was hope.

“I think it’s so important to try to help those who are incarcerated and to give them some hope and to know that people are thinking about them and praying for them,” said Josephine Smith, who has volunteered with Cards of Mercy for various holidays during the past few years.

“I love that we can bring happiness to people who are probably in a hopeless situation,” said Kathleen Guerin, another volunteer. It was her first time helping with the project. “I believe in Restorative Justice, and I wanted to bring some joy to people in jail.”

In addition to St. Anne and St. Veronica, participating groups included Church of the Good Shepherd (Pacifica), Holy Name School (San Francisco), St. Finn Barr Church (San Francisco), St. Monica School (San Francisco), St. Patrick Church (Larkspur), St. Raymond Church (Menlo Park), St. Thomas More Church (San Francisco), and St. Timothy Church (San Mateo).

Groups are invited to participate in the Cards of Mercy project for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Cards are due by May 11. Learn more at https://www.sfarch.org/cards-of-mercy/

Melissa Vlach is the social action and digital media coordinator for the Office of Human Life & Dignity.