The tall, distinguished woman was articulate and well-dressed. She quickly took command of the room as she spoke to the women gathered in the Montgomery, AL church basement in February two years ago. Kate was representing the organization, Aim to Inmate Mothers (AIM), a reconnect program that offers training, counseling and help to women in prison. Kate gave her name and told about the programs her organization offered within prisons. Then . . . she rattled off her prison number and revealed that she was a former inmate.
Shock turned to admiration as the women heard Kate’s story of being released from Julia Tutwiler Prison in Alabama. When Kate tells her story, audiences are awed by her transformation. Most hear the story, are touched emotionally and move on with their lives.
But, Kim Bullard, who was there the night that Kate spoke at St. James United Methodist Church, determined to do something. Thus began an incredible project for the Women in Missions group at Kim’s church.
Most of the women listening to Kate were surprised to learn that while job training programs, rehabilitation services and other special programs offered within the prison are effective, each released inmate is on her own when she walks through the prison gates into the outside world. Each woman is given tan slacks and a white shirt along with a ten-dollar check and a one-way bus ticket. That’s all no money, no job, no identification and no place to go and wearing what is easily recognizable in the region as standard-issue prison-release garb.
Carol Potok, who heads up the AIM program explains: “Life in the free world can be very intimidating for an ex-felon. There is a stigma attached to having a prison record, and people aren’t always willing to help. The readjustment is often demoralizing and humiliating. Connecting with people who care is essential for a successful transition.”
Kim and her friends determined to do something to help the women enter the outside world. They decided that a personal makeover new clothes and make-up would help the women move into a new life with confidence. They began to plan a clothing boutique where gently used, top-quality clothes would be available for the women. Kim recalls, “As we were discussing the possibilities of where we could put a clothes closet, the barn, which is located on our property came up. Someone said that was a good idea if we didn’t mind the rats.” Rats? The women quickly dismissed that option. But when other options fell through, Kim said, “We decided the barn was the best location so we moved ahead. And, I have yet to see a single rat. If there were ever any rats there, they are now gone.”
By June 2002 they had converted the barn into a stylish clothing boutique called Kate’s Closet. Racks and cabinets were brought in and everything was painted in bright colors. Kim and the other women collected suits and dresses as well as shoes, purses and other accessories donated by women in the area. These clothes are nearly new and stylish; often, they still have the tags attached. The volunteers display the items as appealingly as a high-end mall boutique.
There is no way the women could afford to buy these items; nor could they shop in such an attractive store. Carol Potok described Kate’s Closet, “The atmosphere in the boutique is one of concern and love. The women walk in feeling alone and scared, and walk out an hour later feeling confident and cared for”
“We want to show each of the women the unconditional love of Jesus,” said Kim as she described how Kate’s Closet works. “We are there as the women come out of the prison. They want to get out of the prison outfits as soon as possible. You know, they usually just throw away those pants and shirts because they don’t want to ever see them again.”
The shop is run totally by volunteers from the Women in Missions group. They welcome each woman with a hug and a smile. The shopping experience includes a make-over by a make-up artist and accessories to complete the outfits each woman chooses shoes, handbags, scarves, jewelry. The women are supplied with new undergarments and pantyhose. Before a woman leaves the shop, the volunteers pray with her, give her a Bible, a promise book and a wrapped basket of hygiene items.
Penelope Poitevint, a volunteer at the Closet, says, “I was moving along on a wonderful spiritual journey at St. James UMC when Kate’s Closet pulled me in. I like to help others so I began to volunteer. The joy I feel when I volunteer at Kate’s Closet is amazing. The women come for a new beginning and I receive a new beginning each time I am there. Seeing their happiness-I couldn’t imagine not coming back to do it again. I have been blessed in this life and it feels wonderful to make a difference in the lives of others.”
Thus far, forty former inmates have had their appearance transformed inside Kate’s Closet and they have gone out equipped for a fresh start and a new life. “Many of the women have never had anyone give them anything; they are often just overwhelmed that someone cares enough to give them something with no strings attached,” said Mrs. Bullard.
Kate Richardson, for whom the Closet is named, said, “Many of the ladies express an interest to succeed. They have clear-cut goals and the motivation to put them into action. They are ready to begin this journey in the ‘free world’ and change the course of their life and the lives of those they touch in the process. They are no longer a burden to society, but rather are helping to make society a better place because of having received the agape love of God and Kim and other workers at Kate’s Closet. The love and care they receive can help turn their dreams into a reality. They give God all the glory for such an experience.”
Kim Bullard summarized what happens to the inmates, “They come in to get something to wear; they leave with hope.”
Kate’s Closet is located at St. James United Methodist Church, 9045 Vaughn Road, Montgomery, Alabama 36117