I had never stepped foot into a prison until a few years ago when I went into Hiland Mountain Correctional Center for the first time. I honestly hadn’t thought much about correction centers or the people sentenced to time there until my friend pointed me in their direction after discovering that I needed thousands of crocheted beanies.
I was in the beginning stages of creating a non-profit organization making yarn wigs for children with cancer. According to my friend, Hiland Mountain Correctional Center (HMCC) had a group of proficient crocheters who could help make the beanies that would serve as the base for the wigs. After a few phone calls and meetings with the facility’s social worker, I found myself entering the prison for the first time with bins full of yarn to get the women started.
I handed over my driver’s license, left my belongings in a locker, received a volunteer badge, and passed through multiple guarded and locked doors. I walked through hallways with women who were all wearing yellow pants and shirts with “HMCC” written across the back.
As I got settled into one of the hobby-craft classrooms, I took notice of the women in the room that day. They represented a wide variety of ages, races, and ethnicities. Some seemed shy and made little eye contact, others displayed angry, intimidating countenances, and a few were chatty and vocal about their excitement to do something new. Once we got rolling, everyone there seemed enthusiastic about the project, and I began visiting HMCC once or twice a month to monitor their crocheting progress and teach them how to make yarn wigs.
I was surprised at how quickly I began to feel comfortable working with the women and seeing past my first impressions of them. I learned that the young woman with the words “HELL BENT” tattooed across her fingers was extremely talented with a crochet hook. She worked so fast that she could make three beanies in the time it took most women to make one, and her beanies were perfect every single time. Her frequent trips to solitary confinement for fighting began to wane as she began to feel appreciated and saw the joyful smiles of the sick children.
I noticed that one quiet, withdrawn woman seemed to work with greater joy and a drive to improve the quality of her work after seeing pictures of the smiling children wearing the wigs she had created. She teared up as she looked at the pictures and in amazement said, “I was able to do that?!”
I learned to rely on one woman who kept excellent records and organized the supplies their group had on hand. She deftly tracked the wig production process and always knew what they needed for my next visit. She kept the program running smoothly during her time at HMCC, and continues to work on the project from her home today, having made over 1,000 wigs to date!
I have come to know and love the women I have worked with at HMCC over the past several years. I know they have committed crimes, but I honestly don’t think about it while I’m there. I eat lunch with them in the cafeteria and we chat about motherhood. I marvel at their talents and have felt God’s deep love for them. I know He wants them to be served and loved by others. After all, when addressing those who will enter His Kingdom, Christ said, “For I was hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in…I was in prison and ye came unto me….Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (KJV Matthew 25:35-40).
God loves those who fill the prisons as much as He loves those who fill His church buildings. And I believe He wants us to develop that same, pure love. I am humbled that it took my personal experience with the women at HMCC to really feel and know that truth, but it has given me a renewed resolve to love all of God’s children as He would if He were walking among us.
I would encourage anyone seeking Christ, to seek out those who are often forgotten or who may seem (to us), to be far from His reach. In the words of one of my favorite Christian artists, Nichole Nordeman, “You cannot imagine all the places you’ll see Jesus, but you’ll find Him everywhere you thought he wasn’t supposed to go…so go.”
Holly Christensen is a third-generation Alaskan, living on the same land that her grandparents settled. She enjoys life with her three young children and picks up extra shifts as a nurse. She is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and co-founder of the internationally recognized non-profit The Magic Yarn Project, which she continues to direct from her home.