When those convicted of a crime are sent to prison, many people don’t consider what happens to the relationships with loved ones on the outside. However, Cecelia Whitfield did, and so she started Use What You’ve Got Prison Ministry (UWYGPM) to offer assistance.
Whitfield’s ministry was born out of personal experience. “My son committed armed robbery at a fast food restaurant in 1988 and as a result was serving a sentence at Medaryville,” she said. “Other families often would ask, ‘can we ride with you?’”
After speaking with those families, she found out that many of them did not have reliable vehicles and that the state did not offer regular transportation to Indiana’s correctional facilities. Whitfield said it was then that she received spiritual direction from God.
“I told my mother I was going to start a prison shuttle bus service, and the Lord called me to do it,” she said.
Whitfield shared her concern with her mother that she didn’t have knowledge in the field. “I only had a high school education, but my mother would say, ‘use what you’ve got,’ and that’s where the name came from,” Whitfield said.
So, Whitfield, who worked for Indiana Bell, and her husband, James, who worked for Eli Lilly, took on the challenge. “I used my own money, and we borrowed money, and then purchased an old school bus,” she said.
In addition, Whitfield scheduled a meeting with Edward Cohn, the Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Corrections in 1990, “to let him know who I was,” she said. “Being an inmate’s mother, I had to prove myself, especially when trying to start something that no one else was doing.”
Whitfield also credits SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), a volunteer organization that advises businesses and not-for-profits, for providing her with information on obtaining a 501(c)(3).
In the early years of the shuttle service, her uncle drove relatives and friends of inmates to various correctional facilities throughout Indiana, and Whitfield spent 19 years behind the wheel as well.
“I enjoy driving and at the time we would go to nine different prisons,” she said, adding, “I worked third shift at the phone company, so I’d drive on the weekends and maybe once during the week.”
Fast forward to 2020, and just like other not-for-profits and businesses, Use What You’ve Got Prison Ministry was affected by the pandemic. “The prisons shut down in March of 2020 and they stayed closed until September of 2021,” Whitfield said. The prisons slowly started to re-open, but “when the COVID-19 numbers started to rise in January, they had to restrict visitors again.”
The shuttle is not the only service that Use What You’ve Got Prison Ministry offers. There is an annual Christmas party where gifts of clothing and toys are provided to children, and Whitfield also has added data collection to her focus. “In the 33 years it has been in existence, the shuttle service has logged more than 700,000 miles,” she said.
Whitfield compiled information on how many inmates received visits through Use What You’ve Got Prison Ministry’s service. Students from IUPUI then used that information to study the ministry’s effect on recidivism. Recidivism refers to whether a person relapses into criminal behavior after being released from prison, and the research indicated that “just one visit from a relative or friend can reduce inmate recidivism by 13%,” Whitfield said.
As much as the ministry assists others, Whitfield said it has been just as beneficial to her. “This has been healing to me to be able to help other families,” she said.
For more information about Use What You’ve Got Prison Ministry, you can click here.
Diane Moore is a frequent contributor to Indy Maven. You can follow her on Instagram @whatdianeloves.
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