It may not have been what every mother dreams of when she goes Christmas shopping for her children. But for Bernice Gibbons, it was practically a dream come true.
In small groups Saturday, Ms. Gibbons and her fellow inmates at the Albion Correctional Facility for Women were allowed to mill around a few tables displaying toys, housewares and other articles. Studying the objects carefully, each woman anxiously waited her turn to select the gifts she wanted to send to her children on the outside.
"This is the first thing I've been able to send them in over a year," said Ms. Gibbons, a 34-year-old Brooklyn native who has been in prison for eight months for selling drugs. She's also the mother of five children, ranging in age from 6 to 20, who are waiting to be reunited with her -- in March, they hope.
"At least they'll know I'm thinking about them. It means a lot. I feel like this (the opportunity to send her children gifts) is like a gift from God," she said.
And to her benefactor, Constance B. Eve., Ms. Gibbons added: "God bless her heart."
Mrs. Eve, chairwoman of the Buffalo-based Women for Human Rights and Dignity, has come to the aid of women prisoners and their children through her Project Joy program for the past 11 Christmas seasons. Her group, with help from local businesses and churches, has bought more than $20,000 worth of gifts to be sent to the inmates' children.
But the program offers more than a chance for incarcerated women to bestow Christmas gifts. With assistance from about 70 committed volunteers, Mrs. Eve's group annually brings these women a program designed to offer hope for a better life beyond the prison fences.
Saturday's program included sing-alongs, as well as some spiritual guidance and emotional support from representatives of various community and social agencies. There also were workshops on self-esteem and grooming, social services, medical and housing information, plus educational opportunities available while in prison and jobs that may be available after release.
A similar program was held Thursday for women in the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden, and another is scheduled for today in the county Holding Center.
This is a very personal crusade for Mrs. Eve, who also founded the Center for Education and Vocational Enrichment. She expressed dismay at the high number of women in the prison who had not completed high school and the high percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics represented at the institution. "These are the mothers of our next generation. We've got to help them," she said.
Without proper education, she noted, the prospects of these women finding jobs that pay decent wages are not good. That, she said, would almost guarantee a high rate of recidivism.
"In my opening comments to the women here today (Saturday), I focused on them making a gift to themselves; to get that piece of paper while they're in here," said Mrs. Eve, whose husband, Arthur O. Eve, D-Buffalo, is deputy speaker of the Assembly.
Rachelle Leaks, a 31-year-old mother of three from the Bronx, also is serving a sentence on drug charges and expects to be released in 1992. She said she wants another chance at completing school and becoming a better parent. Saturday, she selected a stuffed bear to be sent to her 8-year-old daughter.
"When I was out there, I used to do things for my kids, but I got involved with drugs and it changed my whole attitude," she said.
The Albion facility, a medium-security prison that houses about 500 women, is expanding to accommodate 600 more women by next summer, Mrs. Eve noted.
"That is a horror story. What are we going to do next year when this place is going to be much more dehumanized?" she asked.
"I don't think any of us is in any position to make judgments about what happened in these women's lives.
"All I know is that something has obviously gone terribly wrong in our society. There are so many things bombarding and colliding with each other," she added.
"In the meantime," Mrs. Eve said, "it's imperative to let these women know" that she and others care about them and their children, "and to try and offer them some of the tools they'll need to cope with in a difficult world."
"I don't expect to turn anybody around here today, but we can give them hope," she said.