The United Way of Southeast Arkansas received what may seem like an unlikely $1,000 donation Thursday afternoon from a group of men not normally thought of as charitable givers.
The 12 members of the Inmate Council at the Arkansas Department of Correction’s Randall L. Williams Unit in Pine Bluff are the first incarcerated individuals in the history of the United Way Fall Campaign to raise funds for the organization.
They were on hand for an informal check presentation ceremony. Carla Martin, Fall 2012 Campaign Chair, and United Way Executive Director Jim Caldwell accepted the check from the inmates.
Council President Chester Dickerson said that he and former Council President Christopher Williams came up with the fundraising idea in order to do something for the community and said that the cooperation of the prison staff and the council sponsors was crucial to their success.
“We would like to thank our sponsors who helped us to make this happen,” Dickerson said.
“We both thought that it is very important to give back to the community,” Dickerson said. “It’s all about giving back and making a difference in people’s lives. This is what I am about and I thought that it was important.”
Dickerson said that the idea was enthusiastically received by his fellow inmates.
“They didn’t mince words,” Dickerson said. “They said that they were ready to help out in whatever way they could.”
Inmate Tony Fullbright said he was happy to be part of the effort.
“To be a part of this and to give something back to the community was important to me and I look forward to doing it again next year,” Fullbright said.
Corbin Vincent said it is important to help those in need.
“I’m glad that we could all just give back,” Vincent said. “This is a way that we can give to those who are less fortunate.”
The money was raised through the sale of food items, primarily pizzas, to fellow inmates and to prison staff, over the course of the past year.
Deputy Warden John Lowe provided some background on the fundraising efforts.
“The United Way campaign is an annual event for the ADC,” Lowe said. “All units are challenged to carry out the campaign challenge. This year some interest was expressed by the inmates in joining the campaign.”
Lowe said that the Inmate Council has traditionally raised funds to purchase entertainment items like DVDs, and recreational equipment.
“They added this year something to give back to the community,” Lowe said. “The idea appealed to a lot of them. They are allowed to purchase food materials and they used their purchases to prepare food items such as polish sausage and French fries, popcorn, sandwiches and pizzas. The pizzas went over really well here. The proceeds they raised went into an account maintained under strict accounting procedures by the ADC.”
Lowe said that the prison staff were significant participants in the purchase of the items prepared by the inmates.
Shea Wilson, ADC communications administrator, said that giving to the United Way was one of only a few options open to those wanting to give back who are living behind bars.
“These inmates, they feel like they want to do something positive and there are not a lot of ways to do so because they are locked up here,” Wilson said. “For those who want to help, it is important for us to support them because it will hopefully lead to a more successful integration back into society for those who will be getting out. By taking part in this they have made an investment in the community and have a stake in it.”
Lowe said that he broke the staff up into four shifts as well as a utility shift and an administrative support shift for fundraising purposes and gave each a goal of $1,000.
“Our A shift raised $1,166; the B shift raised $1,274; the C shift raised $698; utility shift raised $605; and administrative support raised $854,” Lowe said. “That’s pretty good for our little 500 person unit here.”
Martin expressed her delight at finding a group of inmates who are dedicated to doing what they can for the wider community that surrounds them.
“I think it’s awesome to see residents of Jefferson County who too often are not thought of as residents rise to the occasion like this,” Martin said. “For thinking to recognize and make a difference in the lives of people in the community speaks of the caliber of these people and of their compassion.”
“I am also thankful for the employees and staff who were challenged and who also rose to the occasion,” Martin said.
Caldwell addressed the inmates.
“Guys, we can’t tell you how moved we are by what you’ve done here,” Caldwell said. “Words can hardly capture what I am feeling right now. For all of the negative stuff that’s said about Pine Bluff it is one of the most consistent United Way communities in the state and is the strongest in the state as far as fundraising goes.”
Martin also offered thanks.
“Today we’ve got another group of individuals who are making a difference,” Martin said. “You all made the decision to give back to individuals who aren’t here with you. So many times individuals who made a mistake in life aren’t given an opportunity for a second chance and aren’t allowed to do what they can to help others. You all had both of those opportunities. The staff here didn’t have to let you take part in the fundraising but they did.”
Lowe introduced the staff members who worked most closely with the inmates in their fundraising efforts.
Inmate Council sponsor Scott Simmons said that the whole process was important for the men involved.
“It’s important for all of them to be good stewards to their environment,” Simmons said.
Council sponsor Lewatis Garrett said that he and Simmons coordinated and planned the various fundraisers, including supervising the making of pizzas and inspecting them after they were made.
“They made 16 inch pizzas and sold them for $10 each,” Garrett said. “The people who bought the pizzas knew what the money was going to and were very enthusiastic.”
Fall Campaign update
Caldwell said that the fall fundraising United Way campaign is 52 percent towards its target of $1,280,000, having raised $665,412 as of Thursday.
“What we experienced here today is really good news for the campaign and so far we’ve only had good news,” Caldwell said. “It’s looking good at this point.”