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Group Provides 'Message Of Hope' In A Backpack For Formerly Incarcerated

Courtesy of Tom Dalziel

Essentials like a toothbrush, food and - these days - face masks, all provide a sense of security to people. Now, those being released from the Lebanon Correctional Institution north of Cincinnati will get the same kind of comfort.

The new Returning Citizen Welcome Backpack Project provides toiletries, gift cards to stores and restaurants, and other supplies to formerly incarcerated people. 

Tom Dalziel, the faculty advisor for a Jesus Christ Church of Latter-day Saints student organization at the University of Cincinnati, says the program was started as a service project this fall. Last year, the organization raised about 2,000 pounds of food for the Bearcats Pantry at UC. But with fewer students on campus this year, the need at the pantry was less.

Dalziel says the backpack program was inspired by a similar one he heard about near his parents in Ontario.

"We're so excited to be supporting returning citizens who are leaving incarceration and welcome them back to the community with a message of hope that this is a new beginning, and we want them to be valued citizens in the community," he says.

The group accepted donations from local churches, volunteers and businesses to provide 200 backpacks to the institution ideally by the end of the year. But he said the students, himself and other volunteers want to see the program become a permanent fixture in the community and expand to serve other nearby prisons.

Holly Lesan is an administrator for JustServe.org, a website Dalziel has been using to promote the project and recruit volunteers. She's also a member of the LDS church and has been a sounding board for Dalziel on the project.

"I think now that we sort of know the process of doing these backpacks, it's going to make it easier to spread that out over Cincinnati and get everyone involved," she says.

They've been working to find ways to do that. Lesan says they're currently planning for LDS churches to do donation drives for the project and are looking for ways to involve others to make it an interfaith and community effort.

"At this point and time, we've done this initial batch of 200, but that's only a six month supply," Dalziel says. "So to meet demand just at the Lebanon Correctional Institution, we need to double our efforts. I know that's not possible with the current volunteers that we have. With community support, I'm hopeful that it definitely will be."

For more information about the project, visit JustServe.org.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.