Hermiston Members Make 2,000 Gift Bags for Prisoners

Members of the Hermiston (Ore.) Church took Jesus’ words seriously when they decided to make gifts for prisoners. Jesus said, “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me” (Matt. 25:35–36).

There is an active prison ministry group at the Hermiston Church. One day one of the prisoners mentioned the Christmas Behind Bars program to one of the volunteers. She brought the idea to the group. They discussed doing this and decided it would be good to do for the Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, Ore. Guy Oltman is the personal ministries leader at the church and heads up the prison ministry team. Paula Oltman also works with this ministry.

They go one weekend a month to the prison for the Friday and Sabbath afternoon service. Once they decided to provide the gifts, they applied to the prison for permission to come. Then they began to collect items for the prisoners. They selected books such as Surprised by Love by Elizabeth Talbot. They gathered granola bars, nuts, candy bars and potato chips and included a free Bible study enrollment card, cards for free books, puzzles and a letter from the Hermiston Church pastor. A local dentist donated toothbrush and toothpaste sets.

“We had a number of miracles along the way,” says Paula, who became the gatherer for many of the items. “One member had a grandson who worked at a potato chip factory in Hermiston. Naomi Larkin went to the factory and was told they were running individual bags that week and if anything went wrong they might give a discount on chips. She went back in the next day and was told, ‘You will not believe this; the run we did has a wrinkle on the seams. We are going to give them to you for the prisoners.’” This miracle saved them $1,000.

When Paula went to Wal-Mart to purchase the candy bars, she cleaned out that section. A clerk, Stephanie Vandeman, helped her by bringing in more boxes from the back, and when she saw it would take two carts she said, “Let me help you.” She helped Paula through the checkout stand and out to her car. Paula learned that Stephanie had married into an Adventist family, but they were no longer active.

They put the gift bags together at the Hermiston Junior Academy gymnasium. It took many hours and volunteers to put the items into the almost-grocery-sized paper bags.

The distribution was on Friday, Dec. 13. “The chaplains had organized things well, and we had 40 volunteers,” says Paula. “Two by two they distributed 100 bags to each unit. The inmates lined up, and we handed the bags to them. There was a warm response from the prisoners. Some groups applauded the bags. It was so exciting to see so many people working to fill the bags.” As Paula was leaving one of the units, an inmate who was reading the letter from the pastor asked her if he could use the address on the letter to send a thank you note or an offering.

The church has received many letters of thanks from the prisoners. Mothers have called the church to say they saw a softening of their sons' hearts since this event. Four Bible study requests have come through the church, and they see new members attending from this event. “I was absolutely exhausted when it was over,” says Paula. “The response has been so positive. Our own church members were so blessed.”

The Hermiston Church board voted to do the same thing next year. Paula says, “We’ve learned a lot from this experience, and I’m sure we will learn more this next year.”

One of the inmates wrote, “You brought light to a dark place. Please know I will never forget this." Another wrote that he knew his life was changed and influenced by the generosity of people loving God.

February 14, 2014 / Upper Columbia Conference