Dozens of teens will be putting in hours of volunteer time at the Archdiocese of San Francisco's Chancery office during July. The young people come on assignment from Young Neighbors in Action (YNIA) to create hundreds of handmade cards for the Archdiocese's Pen Pal Jr. Project.
Some of the construction-paper cards are simple and spare, others cut into heart or cross shapes and speckled with glitter. “Dear Inmate," an eighth grade Catholic schoolgirl wrote recently in her card, "I would like to tell you that the last thing you can lose in life is hope. No matter who you are or what you did, someone will always love you. Just believe.”
The Pen Pal Jr. program connects adolescent Catholic school and religious education students to prisoners in the San Francisco County Jail and San Quentin State Prison. Both students and prisoners are anonymous to each other. “We are trying to accomplish two things at the same time," says Julio Escobar, Restorative Justice Director for the archdiocese. “We are reaching out to the imprisoned as a corporal act of mercy, and helping young Catholics embrace the concept of restorative justice early in their lives.”
The project also encourages youth to pray for those in prison. The young volunteers receive toolkits with exercises to take to their homes, schools, and communities. Cards they create will be shared with the people restorative justice staff encounter during prison, jail, and home visits.
YNIA offers hands-on time at agencies that feed, clothe, and provide resources to the most vulnerable. Activities age-appropriate, but challenging, and may include work in community gardens, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, new immigrant support, day camps, senior centers, and more.