Lois McComb, a volunteer with the Betty Hawkins Jail Ministry, keeps a watchful eye on Caydin, 5, and Jayden, 2. Behind them family members visit inmates via video screens.
In 2007, Betty Hawkins was visiting the Sumner County Jail in Tennessee when she noticed children sitting in the visitation room with nothing to do. "It was a very bleak, concrete block environment," says Jim Hawkins, Betty's oldest son.
Betty Hawkins' observation sparked the idea for a ministry in the jail to children who come to visit. She got permission to set up a bookcase, supply cabinet and children's area in a corner of the room where family members video chat with jailed loved ones. Betty died earlier this year, but her ministry through First United Methodist Church in Gallatin, Tenn., continues. Suzanne Glasgow is now the coordinator.
Volunteers—high school students and adults—welcome an average of 15 to 30 kids from 6 to 9 p.m., Monday through Thursday. The jail is closed to visitors Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
In its six years, Glasgow says, there have been more than 17,000 child encounters, with many children coming back week after week.
The visitation room has "turned from a place to sit and be quiet to a place where children can color, read and be read to, do puzzles, play with cars and interact with other children," Jim Hawkins says. Children who used to complain about visiting relatives now look forward to seeing loved ones and spending time with the volunteers, who often give donated books as well as gifts at Christmas. Time with the volunteers is both emotionally and intellectually nourishing for the children, he adds.
Children's jail ministry supporters donate toys and money, which is used to buy more toys, books and other supplies at Goodwill. Colorful Play-Doh is a favorite, Glasgow says, and so are the Legos.
"It is rewarding when they run to hug you when they arrive and say thank-you when they leave," says Glasgow. "The other night, one little girl looked at me and said, 'This is the funnest place.'"