For nearly 20 years now, students in St. Albert have done a school project at Christmas.
Each year, elementary school students in the Greater St. Albert Catholic school district decorate gift bags and junior students fill them with small items and treats. Volunteers then give the gift bags to inmates at the maximum-security Edmonton Remand Centre, which can house up to 1,952 people awaiting court dates or trials. It’s the biggest prison of its kind in North America.
The gift-bag project is an invisible bridge across a wide chasm from a world that most of the kids will likely never see. It’s a simple gesture, a part of the Christmas celebrations at the Remand Centre and a symbol of Christ’s role as the shepherd searching for the lost sheep. It’s reaching out to society’s marginalized to show students each person has dignity and worth and is worthy of love.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in the Remand Centre or where you are, everyone deserves a sense of family,” said Connor Tuttle, a Grade 9 student at Ecole Secondaire Sainte Marguerite d’Youville (ESSMY). “We’re just trying to get them a gift no matter what that might be.”
“I feel like I’m giving something for Christmas, if that makes sense,” adds Chloe Gray, also a Grade 9 student at ESSMY. “No one should be outcast at Christmas.”
Both students have been a part of the gift-bag project since their days at elementary school. They receive credit for participating, but they’re quick to add that they want to be a part of it regardless.
It’s exactly a week before Christmas Day. In an assembly line fashion, and amid the chatter that only junior students can make, students at ESSMY are filling stacks of white lunch bags. Each contains a pen, a notebook, a calendar, an address book, a chocolate bar, and a crossword puzzle.
This year, 1,500 gift bags are distributed, one for each inmate.
Elementary school students have decorated the bags, some with the traditional Merry Christmas message, but others more touching and profound. They speak of joy. Of forgiveness. And of love.
One says “Bless your soul,” another says “Hope you get out soon,” and yet another says “You have my prayers. Never lose hope.”
“The bags are so prayerful,” adds Jerry Moran, one of three Roman Catholic chaplains at the Remand Centre and chief organizer of the annual gift-bag project.
“This is a Christian environment that they’re made in and they’re given instruction about it. A little eight-year-old is telling a 22-year-old or 29-year-old or 39-year-old inmate what Christmas means in terms of Christ.”
The gift-bag project began 18 years ago, before Moran became the chaplain at the Remand Centre. But it’s Moran who ensured the initiative was revived after it started to falter, and that it continues to thrive.
Moran collects the donated items. The chocolate and the pens come from various parishes in the Edmonton Archdiocese and from Knights of Columbus or Rotary clubs. The schools provide the bags, which are decorated, filled, stacked and trucked to the Remand Centre.
Christmas is celebrated early at the Remand due to staffing levels. On Dec. 21, the bags are given to the inmates. The inmates are dressed in orange or blue overalls – depending on whether they are in the general population, learning a trade, or taking classes – and plastic sliders without laces. The inmates walk down the long, white corridors of the Remand Centre to the Christmas celebration.
And then they sing, 300 of them in each unit, a hymn, and a secular Christmas song. Inmates also have the opportunity to attend Catholic Mass.
“That’s Christmas for them,” said Moran, who has served as chaplain at the Remand Centre for 20 years.
Due to privacy and security concerns, Grandin Media was unable to enter the centre or interview the inmates. However, their spirit comes through via those who are involved in the program.
Moran said the inmates’ reaction is mixed. Some dismiss the students’ gift bags outright. Others are confused. Still others are overcome with emotion.
“The one that I remember and cherish is: a very serious offender has kept one of the bags in his possession from about 15 years ago,” Moran recalled.
The inmate has since been transferred to the Edmonton Institution maximum security prison. “He’s in the Max right now. He’s never received anything so marvelous. I’ve never seen the bag, but he tells me it’s in his portfolio.”
“Some people have children,” Moran said. “And to have something that comes from a child, which is what the bags are, is really heartrending for them. I’ve seen some of the ‘hardest’ guys around, cry. They pick up their bag and turn around and walk away because they don’t want you to see them in the emotional state that they’re in.”
Organizers say the project teaches students lessons that go beyond the classroom.
“They see society as not liking them at all,” Moran said of the Remand inmates. “When these little bags come through, they can’t help but say ‘Somebody thinks of us at Christmas time’. This is a special time of year, and even if you’re in prison and you’ve done stuff that society considers to be noxious, you still deserve to be treated like a human being.”
“It ignites in our students a sense of compassion. It’s just a confirmation that we’re a people of hope, that we want everyone to feel loved and to feel the compassion of God’s mercy at Christmastime,” said Cathy Giesbrecht, the principal at ESSMY.
“We’re wanting the students to understand that regardless of the circumstance, everybody is worthy,” Giesbrecht added. “This isn’t about good or bad. This is about their dignity as people. Their circumstances don’t need to be forever. It doesn’t need to be their one defining moment.”
Aside from the school curriculum, the gift-bag project reflects the corporal works of mercy as described in St. Matthew’s Gospel: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those who are imprisoned.
“They’re still human and they still have relationships with people on the outside,” said Rev. Jozef Wroblewski, the pastor at Holy Family Parish in St. Albert, who has regularly celebrated Mass at the Remand Centre for the last seven years.
His parish has a group that goes to visit the inmates the Remand Centre. Each week the inmates are invited to take part. They’re given a few minutes of catechesis before Mass, then they are full participants. At Christmas it will be no different.
“The inmates write their own prayer intentions,” Father Wroblewski said. “They pray for their families. They pray that they’re healthy and don’t fall into alcohol or drug addiction. And they pray that they’re released soon and can seem them again. They’re not high-falutin’ prayers, but it comes from their hearts.”
Over nearly two decades, the project is so ingrained that most students have been involved one way or another. Chaplains at St. Albert Catholic schools say there’s a wide spectrum of reaction from the students. Some simply participate once a year, while others take the lessons to heart and make their life mission to keep making a difference.
For Moran, the gift bag program is also a reminder of the efficacy of incarceration itself.
“The other lesson is: Remember society, that about 80 per cent of the people in jail don’t need to be there. There are other ways of handling those situations. We’re not teaching anything by punishing,” Moran explained.
“We shouldn’t be running this program as far as I’m concerned. We don’t need to run it. But all the jails throughout the world are generally for the disadvantaged. The biggest lesson is: Let’s get rid of this program and not have so many people in jail.”
In the past, inmates have even responded with general letters of their own to students in St. Albert, which has been the biggest push to continue the project. The letters talk about gratitude, the desire to change and how much they miss their families, particularly at Christmas.
Moran said he’s been approached by public school boards who want to replicate the project in their schools. It does have its critics, but he’s grateful for the support of Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools.
“Not everybody in the school district thinks this is a great idea,” he said. “The administration has been very clear that, from the Christian point of view, this something we need to do.”
In some years, donations to the gift-bag project have been thin and it’s been difficult to fill the bags After nearly two decades, Moran said he still enjoys seeing the joy and enthusiasm of the students — even though school staff don’t really need him around to make the project work.
“I’m going to fall off my perch sometime, but I would like it to go on. But while I’m here I’m here, I’m going to try to make a go of it.”