JANESVILLE—After the passing of longtime jail chaplain 87-year-old Iris Guelker on Dec. 16, 2019, those with the Rock County Jail Chaplains are working to continue her legacy of outreach to inmates and to collect holiday gifts for inmate’s children.
Guelker has some big Santa boots to fill. She led the program for more than 45 years and had a network of churches which helped her keep the inmates’ children receiving gifts and the inmates receiving an apple and a candy bar at Christmas.
Her passing was a bit sudden, although she had been transitioning other volunteers to take the reins including helper Julaine Williams who is the new coordinator for Rock County Jail Chaplains.
Williams explained the chaplaincy would welcome financial contributions this year, especially in light of COVID-19. If people want more information or to send a donation, checks can be made out to Jail Chaplaincy, 706 Glen St., Janesville, WI 53545 or gifts can be dropped off there. For gift drop-offs, Williams said to call her first to ensure there is someone in the office to receive it. Williams’ number is 608-921-1521.
Williams said volunteers will gather the first Tuesday in December to wrap and send out gifts to children out of county, and volunteers will make deliveries of the gifts to children in the county.
Williams said there are usually about 300 inmates with 600 gifts to dispense. Because of a lower jail population due to COVID-19, she is expecting around 400 gifts to go out.
The gifts are for children age 0 to 18. Gift cards are sometimes a good idea for the older children. Gifts can be $5 to $10 and up. If the gifts are small, volunteers can pair them with other items they get donated.
Williams said there is discussion this year about getting the inmates a piece of fruit, candy bar and perhaps a journal.
Volunteer Jail Chaplain Carol Wickersham has been leading up the Journal Project, the second time around as it was done last Christmas.
“We realized one of things that is helpful is for inmates to have opportunities to reflect on all kinds of things. They have a lot of time on their hands and people tend to be very reflective,” Wickersham said.
Wickersham said journals were donated through the Joan Chittister Fund for Prisoners. Each journal has a sheet of prompts to spur reflection and a pamphlet about local resources put together by the Jail’s re-entry staff.
As a chaplain, Wickersham often had moving conversations with inmates about their journal entries. Having the outlet will be critical during this time of isolation due to the pandemic.
“I want them to know they are still remembered and not forgotten,” Wickersham said.
Wickersham said in normal times, a dedicated group of volunteer chaplains visit with inmates at the Rock County Jail every Tuesday night to listen to their concerns, reflect on spiritual concerns, pray and offer support. The chaplains are men and women, both lay and clergy, from faith communities across the county.
Due to the COVID-19 the jail has understandably restricted all outside visitors, including chaplains, from face-to-face visits. If an inmate requests a chaplain’s visit, one-on-one conversations over the phone and behind glass.
Although necessary for safety, Wickersham said it can be hard on inmates.
“They are more isolated than ever before,” she said. “They have fewer visits and I also think there is more worry about people on the outside.”