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Thinking Outside the Shoebox
By Josephyn Nakimuli, Washington Department of Corrections
Published: 12/31/2018

Jail cells The holidays will be a little brighter for some foster children, thanks to some shoe boxes and a group of incarcerated individuals at Washington Corrections Center (WCC) in Shelton.

The group, who call themselves “The Tribal Sons,” donated 60 handmade wooden shoeboxes filled with gifts to Squaxin Island tribal children in foster care. The boxes were presented to Squaxin Island Tribe representatives during a ceremony on December 4, 2018. Each contained gloves, socks, scarves, beaded items, and candy.

Squaxin Tribal Chair Arnold Cooper accepted the boxes on behalf of the tribe. He was visibly overwhelmed looking at the boxes and became emotional speaking about the offering. He held his hands up to each inmate as a sign of gratitude.

“You are not only giving to the community but to the future,” Chairman Cooper said.

Inmates built and hand-painted the boxes with themes ranging from tribal symbols to children’s cartoon characters like Hello Kitty and My Little Pony.

The Tribal Sons are a small group of Native American inmates that focus on the value of tribal brotherhood. Department of Corrections offers many religious, spiritual, and cultural programs to those incarcerated within the prisons. Several prisons have Native American groups that practice cultural traditions such as sweat lodges, powwows, dances and songs and the creation of beaded and painted artwork. Approximately 5.2 percent of the state’s incarcerated population(pdf) are American Indian or Alaska Natives. Squaxin Island, Skokomish, Blackfeet, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, Nisqually, Lummi, Tlingit, and Grand Ronde tribes are all represented within the Tribal Sons, according to Yvonne Brumfield, spokeswoman for WCC.

The idea for the boxes came from an incarcerated individual named Jay, a Squaxin Island Tribe member. Jay saw an ad in the Kla-Che-Min, the tribe’s newsletter to which he subscribes. The advertisement requested sponsorship of a foster child for Christmas. After seeing the ad, he decided to do something.

He thought of the boxes that the prison-issued tennis shoes came in. His idea was to paint them and fill them with different gift items. “Anything I could get my hands on to put a smile on the kids’ faces,” he said.

Jay approached his correctional unit supervisor, Stella Jennings, who loved the idea. She then presented the project to Superintendent Dan White and Associate Superintendent Dean Mason, who approved the project.

“I am sure these boxes are going to make a child’s Christmas a little brighter and make them feel that people do care,” Jennings said.

What followed completely transformed the shoebox idea into a six-month long project that Jay described as “a project of love and unity.” When other inmates in the Tribal Circle found out, many of them were eager to participate as well. Soon after, inmates from different units and all racial backgrounds also wanted to help.

Michael Bray, WCC’s construction maintenance project supervisor, advised the team they could use scrap materials to make wooden boxes. From April to October, inmates built and painted the boxes. The incarcerated individuals, who made the boxes, gathered during the ceremony and spoke about what the project meant to them.

“Not only are we giving back, but we are bonding, healing and though it’s in a small way, we are acting as men and giving back to our community,” said inmate Jaydean Ell. He also said a traditional Lummi Nation blessing during the ceremony and performed a song in the Lakota tribal language.

Another inmate, Joshua, said even though they may be from different tribes, “We’re all sons, brothers, fathers, husbands and members of the communities we come from and appreciate this opportunity to give back.”

Incarcerated individual Keith added some of the inmates who made the boxes had been foster kids themselves and this project not only helped them use their time constructively, but they connected on a deeper level to the cause in hopes that they would bring cheer to the kids.

Angel, another member of the Tribal Sons group, shared how this project had helped him keep on track and had been a great opportunity for the Tribal Sons group to work together as a family to “ensure tribal children in foster care are not forgotten.”

Correctional staff also shared some words at the ceremony.

“The boxes are magic and they carry your love, time and prayers,” said Nancy Dufraine, the department’s tribal relations director. “I’m sure the children will feel it.”

Superintendent White and Associate Superintendent Mason praised the staff and inmates for their accomplishments.

“This has become a WCC facility project and I am proud of our staff and incarcerated population who are always looking at how we can better serve the community,” Mason said. "The fact that these beautiful pieces of functional art came from recycled pallet wood only makes the story better.”

No taxpayer dollars were used for the project. Materials and items for the project all came from donations. Incarcerated individuals from the facility's quilting program also knitted hats and scarves to be included in the boxes.

Kathleen Glennon, a classification counselor who is also personally part of a roller derby team, worked with the team to gather hats, gloves and miniature stockings with candy. The Femme Fianna of Dockyard Derby Dames of Tacoma donated these items.

In addition to building the boxes, the Tribal Sons also created and donated dreamcatchers and beaded necklaces.

Krystle Costa, who is part of the prison’s beading program, said, “Tremendous work and passion had gone into the work for this project, and I’m honored to be part of something that will bring so much warmth to foster children this Christmas.”

Josephyn Nakimuli is currently studying for her master’s degree in Communications. Nakimuli was a winter intern while authoring the article. She has a passion for education and telling people’s stories. For questions, please contact doccommunications@doc.wa.gov.


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