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Annandale students bake cookies bound for prisoners

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When Tom Kelly drives to the Buckingham Correction Center in Dillwyn, Va., he’s usually surrounded by nearly 1,500 homemade cookies. The snacks serve to sweeten the deal, that is, the biannual Kairos retreat held at the medium security men’s prison. 

Weeks before the retreat, volunteers — mostly a cadre of Fairfax and Annandale Catholic moms — start baking cookies to the prison’s specifications. Cookies must be smaller than 3 inches in diameter. They cannot have fruit pieces or icing. Cookies are placed 12 to a plastic bag and labeled with what type of cookies are inside. Typically, they’re frozen until they make their way to Kelly.

While enticing some inmates to the retreat, they provide more than sugary sustenance, said Kelly, who calls them a symbol of God’s unconditional love. 

“I say (to the inmates), what is this cookie made of? They’ll raise their hands and say butter and sugar. I say, what else are they made of? Eventually, they’ll say it’s made of time, generosity, it’s made of love. I’ll say yeah, it’s unconditional love,” said Kelly. “These (cookie bakers) don’t know you, you don’t know them, they’re not expecting anything in return. It’s an introduction to what God wants us to do. When they see that, the scales fall off.”

Students Holy Spirit School in Annandale, (from left) Teresa Nguyen, Nazrawit Belay, Daymee Dawson, Rachel Evans and Danica Fielding, bake cookies for inmates in the school kitchen April 4. Zoey Maraist  |  Catholic Herald 

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It’s a lesson that’s relearned by the volunteer bakers with each stroke of the mixing spoon. At least, that’s the way seventh-grader Bridget Callahan feels. On a sunny April afternoon, she and fellow middle schoolers in the Got Life? Club at Holy Spirit School in Annandale baked cookies, decorated cards and thought about the inmates who would receive the works of their hands.  

“I just think it’s so cool that our cards and our cookies are the ones that they’re going to be receiving,” said Callahan. “It helps us so much and inspires us so much. Everyone benefits from it.”

Under the guidance of teachers Mary Pat Miller and Joan Gregas, the students baked 21 dozen sugar, chocolate chip and lemon cookies. These cookies went to Kairos retreats held in two women’s prisons; in the fall, they bake for the men. Students not taking a turn in the kitchen wrote Bible verses and inspirational messages on cards and paper placemats in the cafeteria.

 Related:Kairos retreats share God’s love with those on the inside

Eighth-grader Declan Forrer hopes the cookies and cards send a message. “They’re not forgotten. They’re still cared about and there’s a God who loves them,” he said. “Even though they’ve done something wrong, they can come to the faith and they can be forgiven. I feel like that would lift a very large weight off your shoulders. Sometimes you don’t feel how much pressure you have until you go to confession and get that off your shoulders. It’s like a whole new life.”

“If they hear that they’re students who are doing this for them, I feel like that could be really inspiring to them,” said his classmate, William Claeys. “We’re not only visiting the imprisoned as the corporal work of mercy, but this could change a lot of their lives.”

Middle schoolers in the Got Life? Club at Holy Spirit School in Annandale decorate cards and placemats for inmates April 4. Zoey Maraist  |  Catholic Herald

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Kelly, with more than 20 years of prison ministry under his belt, has seen firsthand the impact of the cookies. Often, there’s enough not just for the three dozen or so men attending the retreat, but for all the men in the Buckingham prison. With treats to spare, the retreatants are encouraged to give bags of cookies away. 

“On Saturday night, we do a forgiveness ceremony. At the end of all that, we give guys two bags of cookies. We say, this bag is for you, and this bag we want you to give to your worst enemy and ask for forgiveness,” said Kelly.

“This one guy kept getting all these bags of cookies,” said Kelly. “And he goes, ‘What is going on, these guys should hate my guts.’ Finally, he found that all these are from Kairos and said, ‘I’m going to get my own darn cookies.’

“He went all the way through the program. On Saturday night, he goes and takes his own forgiveness cookies to someone else. On Sunday morning he comes back and he is bawling like a baby,” said Kelly. “His heart was just fully converted. Since then, he has been on fire. It’s just amazing to see.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019