The Eastern PA Conference’s Toiletry Bowl campaign to provide basic necessities to incarcerated persons went from high-tech to high-touch on August 30. That’s when over 2,300 toiletry items—soap, toothpaste, deodorant and hand cream—ordered by donors online from Amazon.com were bagged and handed personally to residents of the sprawling Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.
About 83 donors—both individuals and churches—purchased toiletries from June to mid-August that were delivered to Grove United Methodist Church, in West Chester, PA. The Rev Marilyn Schneider, Coordinator of EPA’s Prison Ministry & Restorative Justice (PMRJ) ministry, led a six-member team August 30 to deliver the toiletries to Curran-Fromhold, the largest of six correctional facilities. They were welcomed there by the Rev. Carmelo Urena, head of chaplains in Philadelphia’s prisons, where he serves the religious and spiritual needs of about 8,000 prisoners.
Urena had requested toiletries for the prisoners because the ones they receive when they arrive do not last long, and many do not have resources needed to purchase more from the expensive prison commissary. EPA has also responded generously to his previous requests for donations of much-needed undergarments for incarcerated men and women.*
Joining Schneider were the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm and Eric Drew—Connectional Ministries directors of the Eastern PA and the Greater New Jersey conferences, respectively—along with EPA Conference Lay Leader William Thompson Sr., and the Revs. Allen Keller of Project Restoration and John Coleman of EPA&GNJ Communications.
‘(It) was all a powerful experience for me’
The team worked with Urena to fill about a hundred zip-lock bags with toiletries, men’s underpants and devotional booklets, under the watchful gaze of a small portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. Urena then led them to the Intake Unit where new arrivals are quarantined for medical clearance and other preliminary steps before joining the regular prison population.
Team members learned in conversations with Urena and guards about the prison’s operations and many complex challenges for the prisoners and staff. Then they greeted prisoners, inside and outside their cells, and handed them bagged toiletries while offering words of support and blessing.
The donated toiletries totaled: 1,070 bars of soap, 538 tubes of toothpaste, 550 deodorant sticks and 284 tubes of hand cream. To add interest to the campaign Schneider and her PMRJ team made it a bowl competition among brands, ending just as pro football’s preseason was underway. They welcomed donations from Eastern PA and Greater New Jersey conference members.
The “winning” brands were Colgate toothpaste, Ivory Soap, Degree deodorant and Curel hand cream. “But the real winners,” said Schneider, “are those who will receive these needed toiletries as they enter incarceration in the Philadelphia prison system. Our generosity is a reflection of God’s love and care for them at a very difficult time in their lives.”
“I have never been in a jail cell before,” said Allen Keller, who found the experience to be “wonderful, although sadly sobering. I have a lot to process!”
Eric Drew works with the PMRJ team as part of the EPA&GNJ affiliation. “Seeing the generosity of people in our churches, then packing the bags of toiletries, getting to know the prison staff, and passing out toiletries to inmates was all a powerful experience for me,” he said.
The PMRJ team’s next campaign is one they have led successfully each year since 2014. The Christmas Cards for People in Prison Campaign, in which they collect mostly pre-made cards printed, signed and delivered by EPA members. In 2022, EPA delivered 6,960 total signed cards to 12 correctional facilities, plus 3,187 requested unsigned cards to the Philadelphia Prisons System, a total of over 10,000 cards. (Read “EPA sends over 10,000 Christmas cards to prisoners.”)
To learn more contact Rev Marilyn Schneider, Coordinator of EPA Prison Ministry & Restorative Justice, at email@example.com