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Clothed with Hope

How a makeover ministry helps former inmates get a second chance.

Lisa Temple sometimes finds it hard to think of her skills as a makeup artist as tools for ministry. But every time she gives a makeover to a newly released female prisoner, she's reminded of how God can use every talent.

"Since inmates aren't allowed to wear makeup, the ladies look in the mirror and can't believe how attractive they look," says Lisa. "I love that!"

On the day of release, a woman is given a ten-dollar check, a one-way bus ticket home, and easily recognizable, standard-issue prison-release garb: tan slacks and a white shirt.

Lisa's a volunteer at Kate's Closet, a Montgomery, Alabama-based boutique that provides makeovers to just-released prisoners from nearby Julia Tutwiler Prison. On visiting the boutique, women are given professional clothing to wear on job interviews, along with accessories, personal care items, and a Bible.

Kate's Closet opened its doors in June 2002. Just a few months earlier, the boutique's founder, Kim Bullard, was sitting in the basement of her church, listening to a presentation about another organization, Aid to Inmate Mothers (AIM).

The presenter, Kate Richardson, spoke about AIM's goals: to introduce female inmates to Christ through Bible studies and Christian mentoring, and to provide job training and counseling. She also spoke about the lack of support available to prisoners after their release. On the day of release, Kate explained, a woman is given a ten-dollar check, a one-way bus ticket home, and easily recognizable, standard-issue prison-release garb: tan slacks and a white shirt.

"Too often, the church just preaches at you, then you're left hanging," Kate told the audience, explaining the viewpoint of the typical prisoner. "What's needed is for former prisoners to walk into the arms and hearts of people who really care."

Then Kate rattled off her own prison number, revealing she'd once been an inmate. Kim hardly could believe the well-dressed, articulate woman standing before her had served time at Julia Tutwiler Prison.

Kim was deeply moved by Kate's story. The image of these women leaving the prison in obvious prison-issued clothing stuck in her mind. She thought about how the simple gift of clothing really could encourage these women.

Kim shared the idea with her church's Women in Missions group, and they immediately began making plans to open a boutique for these former inmates. Kim contacted AIM, and the organization agreed to connect her with recently-released prisoners. Kim then received permission to use a barn located on the church property to house the boutique.

News of the church's project quickly spread. Kim began receiving donations of money, clothing, makeup, and toiletries from businesses, community members, and other churches. Racks and cabinets were brought in, and the boutique was painted bright colors. Stylish displays of "nearly new" suits, dresses, shoes, purses, and other accessories were set up as appealingly as at a mall boutique. Kim decided it was only appropriate to name the boutique after Kate Richardson, whose talk had inspired the idea.

When a woman who's been recommended by AIM exits the prison gates, either someone she knows or an AIM representative meets her and drives her to Kate's Closet. "She wants to get out of the prison outfit as soon as possible," Kate says. "She usually just throws away those pants and shirt because she doesn't want to ever see them again."

At Kate's Closet, volunteers welcome each woman with a hug and a smile. They help the women choose outfits, complete with accessories—shoes, handbags, jewelry. Each visitor is supplied with new undergarments and pantyhose—purchased from donated funds. If a volunteer makeup artist is working at the shop, the woman also will get her makeup done. Volunteers initially provided the makeup for this part of the ministry, but recently, Mary Kay cosmetics donated products to the boutique.

"Many of these former inmates have never been given anything—ever! They can't believe someone cares enough to give them something with no strings attached."

Before the visitor leaves the shop, the volunteers pray with her and give her a Bible, a booklet of biblical promises specific to crises women face, and a wrapped basket of hygiene items that are donated by local businesses.

In the first year alone, 90 former inmates have had their appearance transformed by Kate's Closet, and they've left equipped for a fresh start.

"I was so excited about having a place like this where I could get clothes," says Glenda Castle, a former inmate. "This will really help me when I go for job interviews. I got some clothes I really like, and I know I look presentable. I left with a wonderful feeling—when we had prayer, God's presence was really there."

Volunteers keep a chart for each woman who visits indicating her size, favorite colors, and garment preferences, should she need further assistance. Though Kate's Closet is usually a one-time experience, AIM keeps track of the women. When a woman needs the next season's clothing or, for some reason, needs another outfit, AIM will recommend a second visit to the boutique.

"Many of these former inmates have never been given anything—ever!" Kim says. "They can't believe someone cares enough to give them something with no strings attached. We think it's so important for them to come to Kate's Closet straight from the prison. Before the world closes in on them, we want to cover them in prayer and prepare them professionally."

Angela Murray, a released prisoner, said that coming to Kate's Closet was like going shopping at a mall, except that "there's a lot of love at Kate's Closet. It's not just the clothes—it's also God's love, as well as the love and guidance that come from all the volunteers there."

Penelope Poitevint, a Kate's Closet volunteer, is amazed at the changes that take place when women come to the shop. On her first day of volunteering, two women came in who had just been released from the prison. After they were dressed in their new clothes, they began dancing around the shop. "I'll never forget their expressions of joy," Penelope says. "They were singing praises to God, and their excitement was heartwarming. That was a great way for me to start. After that day, I couldn't wait to volunteer again."

And the enthusiasm goes both ways. Recently, Penelope was apologizing to a visitor because the hygiene items weren't packaged in a basket—the program couldn't afford the beautiful baskets they'd originally used. Turns out, the just-released inmate's husband worked for a basket company. Within the next two weeks, a shipment of gorgeous baskets arrived at Kate's Closet, a gift from the company where the woman's husband was employed. "This experience is a two-way street; they bless us as much as Kate's Closet blesses them," Penelope says.

"Often the women come into Kate's Closet seeking what they can get out of it," Kim says, "then they leave thinking about what they can give back. The change in attitude from the time the women come in until the time they walk out the door is amazing … and humbling.

"Prayer and love make a difference." She smiles as she adds, "They come in to get something to wear, and they leave with hope."

Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse, author, speaker, and columnist, was appointed by President Bush to serve as an official delegate to both the United Nation's Children's Summit and the U.N.'s Commission on the Status of Women. Kate's Closet is located at St. James United Methodist Church, 9045 Vaughn Road, Montgomery, Alabama 36111; (334) 277-3037.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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