Tyler Bishop, Paul Kaiser, Randy Lord and Luis Roman, inmates at Chippewa Valley Correctional Treatment Facility, pose next to a donation thermometer indicating the amount of money raised for the charity Jason's Presents. (Image Elizabeth Dohms / The Herald)
CHIPPEWA, Wis. — The inmates at Chippewa Valley Correctional Treatment Facility don't harbor fond memories of their childhood Christmases. But that doesn't stop them from spreading some Christmas joy.
In fact, it serves as their incentive.
They have created the GLOW Project, which stands for "Giving Light to Our World," for inmates to donate money to a charity of their choice — in this case, Jason's Presents.
Inmate Randy Lord, 30, of Osceola recognizes the symbolism of his donations.
"We did damage to our communities and have taken a lot from our communities, so it's cool to be able to give back something,” he said.
Inmate Paul Kaiser, 27, of Milwaukee said most of the inmates grew up in poverty and didn't have much, and he stressed the impact of charities such as Jason's Presents.
"I would be very happy if somebody did that for me,” he said. “Nobody did that for me.”
Jason’s Presents is named for Chippewa County Sheriff’s deputy Jason Zunker, who was killed in January 2008 while redirecting traffic at an accident scene near Bloomer. The program aims to provide presents for families who cannot afford them.
Luis Roman, a 23-year-old Milwaukee native, said his involvement in the program will help to redefine him.
"I've made a lot of mistakes, but I am here to give back," he said. "It's not who I was or what I am now, but what I am trying to do that's going to define me."
Roman added that his contributions are helping him evolve into a better father figure for his daughter and son.
"To give a child something that I didn't have, it feels good — to put a smile on their faces," he said.
Inmate Tyler Bishop, 34, who hails from Denver, said this fundraising effort helps him to feel at home.
"My family usually does something like this every year, so I thought it would be a good chance for me to do something positive while I was in here,” Bishop said.
Initially, the program aimed to collect $125. The inmates surpassed that total on the first day.
Lord was impressed by how much support the fundraiser garnered from fellow inmates.
"Prison is not always the most lucrative," he joked.
In one fundraising effort directed by Lord near the chapel where he volunteers, the inmates were able to secure a significant number of donations.
"I would say at least 80-90 percent of people (donated) that came through," he said.
Now, the proceeds total $554.
The inmates donate the money they earn from either working in the jail or participating in the earned release program, which pays 15 cents an hour. They can earn up to a dollar an hour.
"It comes out to $12 every two weeks," Bishop said, who shaved one year off his 2-year in, 2-year out sentence by participating in the earned release program.
Lord, Bishop, Kaiser and Roman each donated about 10 percent of the funds in their regular accounts.
"Especially for inmates, a lot of them don't have too much money, but they still donate what they can," Kaiser said.
Chaplain Andy Mason said there are so many products the inmates could buy, like televisions, radios and food from the canteen.
"There's a lot of other avenues that they can spend their money on which can really help their stay here ... and choosing not to buy that and give it to someone else is beautiful," he said.
Erika Stevens, a CVCTF social worker, said there are additional costs deducted from the inmates' earnings, depending on their circumstances.
"If the men owe any obligations or if there's any sort of child support, it's deducted out of that ahead of time, so really what they see is a very small amount," she said.
To keep track of funds, Lord and Roman created a donation thermometer fixed to a support post in the visiting room. This also serves as a marketing strategy to engage other inmates in the fundraiser.
"They're asking questions," Stevens said. "If they didn't know what the GLOW project was (they ask) what is this thermometer that keeps growing so much every day?"
When Kaiser proposed this idea to other inmates, he said they were hesitant to give to an unfamiliar community.
"I just told them that if they grew up without much in their lives and their parents were struggling, wouldn't they want somebody to do that for them?" he said.
The inmates began donating Nov. 18 and can donate up until Friday.
On Dec. 4, the CVCTF will hold an event in the visiting room to celebrate the donations and deliver a check to Leah Berg, local organizer for Jason's Presents. Planned are two concerts plus readings of original poems written by the inmates.
"They can't go out in the community and watch kids open their gifts, but they get to see the seed they planted," Stevens said.