Kevin Starrs, director of Prison Ministry for the Diocese of Phoenix, explains the role of mentors

When Dominica was released from the women’s correctional facility in Perryville, Marina Salazar was waiting for her with a decorated paint bucket. Just as she does for all the women she mentors, the Hand in Hand ministry volunteer fills the metal cylinder with gifts such as make-up, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a rosary and a Bible.

“That is their bucket list to put their plans and dreams in,” Salazar said of her symbolic present.

A licensed optician, Salazar has been volunteering for seven years with Hand in Hand, a Catholic program to help guide and support women who are incarcerated during their time in prison and after they are released.

Prison Ministry is an evangelizing community that relies upon volunteers who aren’t afraid to bring the Gospel to all people, especially those who are incarcerated.

“I want to be an inspiration to these mentees and leave my handprint in their hearts,” Salazar said.

Salazar has had many women who start the program in prison successfully go on to change their lives after they are released. Dominica, who worked hard to complete the program, now has two jobs, housing, a car and a child in college.

“It is a really good program,” Dominica said of Hand in Hand. “It helped you find out who you are and what you want in life.”

Hand in Hand is part of the diocesan Prison Ministry that serves men, women, youth and young adult inmates with Eucharistic services, Scripture study, mentorship programs and help once they are released. The ministry also helps the families of inmates with back-to-school supplies and Christmas presents, and they help inmates after they are released with gift cards for food and clothing, as well as other support services, said director Kevin Starrs.

As one of the 71 programs in the diocese funded by the Charity and Development Appeal, Starrs said the diocese is able to operate the vital ministry and its programs.

“No CDA, no prison ministry,” Starrs said.

Lisa Wentz, CDA program director, said that it is important to remember that “imprisoned men and women are also sons and daughters, fathers and mothers.”

“Most face an uphill climb upon their release,” Wentz said. “Prison ministers help the incarcerated build confidence and a firm foundation in God, imagine a future and, hopefully, connect to a positive support system. The CDA ensures Prison Ministry has the staffing in place to coordinate different ministry programs for men and women in prisons throughout our diocese.”

With about 150 volunteers now serving in prison ministry throughout the diocese, Starrs calls the work “a bridge from the Church to the prison.”

He said he is inspired by the volunteers who are typically average parishioners with no experience in prisons, but who feel called to serve in the ministry. They face a two-month process, an extensive training and often must wait up to an hour to enter the facility or are sometimes turned away if there are any difficulties.

He said the reason volunteers persist is they find the work fulfilling — the inmates are grateful for the volunteers and their time.

“In my position you get a lot of blessings,” Starrs said. “You get blessed with the inmates themselves, and you get blessed by the volunteers.”