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Missional Community Spotlight: Equipping Incarcerated Women

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Although she’s been involved with prison ministry for 18 years, Vicki Helgesen says God’s goodness, mercy and provision continue to amaze her.

One such instance recently occurred through her work with Equipping Incarcerated Women, Christ Presbyterian’s missional community that formed in 2015 to come alongside imprisoned or recently released women in the Nashville area.

Helgesen had issued a request to the group (comprised of about 40 members from 10 different area churches) for donations of new bed linens at the Tennessee Prison for Women (TPW). One lady she knew had been tying together torn pieces of linen from old sheets.

It briefly crossed Helgesen’s mind how wonderful it would be to provide new sheets for every bed in the prison’s annex, the transitional center where women live as they draw nearer to their parole date. The annex holds 143 beds.

“I thought I’d ask for donated linens and see how many we got,” she remembers. “Then perhaps we could raise money to purchase the remainder of what was needed.”

Twin-size sheet sets starting pouring in from the missional community. Soon Helgesen sat down to count how many she’d received. “Exactly 143 were donated,” she says. “One set for every bed. I couldn’t believe it.”

The women in the annex were ecstatic. “You would’ve thought we had given each of those girls a hundred bucks,” Helgesen recalls.

The purpose of the missional community is to continually look for ways to meet the practical, emotional and spiritual needs of the incarcerated and recently-released women. This includes offering regular Friday night worship services, Wednesday evening Bible studies and ongoing mentoring partnerships – all at TPW. The missional community recently provided the inmate participants with Bibles and Scripture study materials. The group also helps host an annual Christmas party for the inmates, where they’re treated to a meal brought in from Chick Fil A.

Throughout her work in prisons for almost two decades, Helgesen says she’s witnessed an increasing number of younger women entering the prison system. “They’re in their mid-to-earlier 20s—sometimes even as young as 19. I used to not see that,” she says. “But so much of this is because of drugs. These gals are committing crimes to get the drugs they need.”

More than 80 percent of the imprisoned women have been abused by a man who was supposed to be taking care of them, Helgesen explains. “When you hear their stories, you think, ‘No wonder they’ve made such poor choices.’”

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One major function of Equipping Incarcerated Women is to prepare and support women for life after their release from prison. Helgesen oversees a group of trained, state-approved mentors who begin meeting with women in the prisons before their release to serve as a healthy, caring presence in their life and establish a friendship.

On the day of a woman’s release, the mentor picks up the newly-freed prisoner. She takes her out to lunch before shopping together for new clothing at Goodwill. The mentoring relationship continues for the next six months, although many last much longer.

In the last year, members of this missional community have helped multiple women transition out of halfway houses and assisted them with needs ranging from finding a place to live to paying for an initial electrical deposit or providing home furnishings and a vehicle.

The group offered essential support to another woman who had settled in a home but then lost everything in a fire.

Mentors also help with daily errands, offering time-saving rides to women who may not have vehicles and need to get from work to doctor’s appointments.

“These women are doing the best they can—they are really trying,” Helgesen says. “We exist to lend a hand to these sisters, to be a good neighbor. Our main focus is to serve as mentors and friends, with Jesus being the thread between us.”

To learn more about Equipping Incarcerated Women or become involved, contact Vicki Helgesen at vickihelgesen@gmail.com.