Dozens of girls incarcerated at the Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility in Albany are drawing up their wish lists for the Christmas holidays – and Rev. Renee Ward is working to find local residents who can fill their modest needs.
Ward has worked as a Youth Authority multicultural liaison and gang specialist since the facility was revamped and reopened to solely incarcerate teenaged female offenders in February of this year. It's the only prison of its kind in Oregon.
"What I've been attempting to do is to support these young ladies — many of them come from the Portland area," Ward says. "It is my hope that I will be able to identify partnerships in the communities, particularly those that have prison ministries and the churches and mission work that they will consider helping these young women."
At Oak Creek, Ward conducts weekly support groups for African American and Latino teens. The girls range in age from 14 to 21.
"Originally I was doing the Native American, the Hispanic and the African American support groups," Ward says.
"But these ladies have a great need, because we have an overrepresentation of minorities within the system. We just came out of the governor's summit on overrepresentation, a committee in its 10th year, and we still have that issue with minority overrepresentation particularly in the juvenile justice system — to date we still have that problem."
Ward was in October named as one of three recipients of the prestigious 2008 Oregon Health Forum's Leadership in Health awards, bestowed to "exemplify the organization's tradition of honoring exceptional Oregon leaders who have contributed to the health of Oregonians." She was honored with the Community Leadership Award.
At Oak Creek, Ward says she is currently serving 60 girls, and she's asked each one to list five items they wish they could have but that they can't obtain within the prison.
"These are very practical things, these are things we would take for granted, such as culturally specific hair products — because they're not able to get their personal needs met." Ward says. "And that's a travesty, particularly for the African American female who likes her coif done – she has every right as part of her self-esteem building.
Out of the 60 girls currently incarcerated at Oak Creek, Ward says at least 13 are Hispanic. Ward says all the girls have needs specific to their ethnic groups.
"The Hispanics are currently over-represented, but that's only because we have African Americans who are being released – that's why the numbers are going down," she said.
"But this is ridiculous, I mean I just saw my list and I have 12 Hispanic girls in there, we have Native Americans as well.
"They're still young people, they're still youths, and some of them are mothers too — they need to support their children but they're children themselves," Ward says.
"Many have come up the rough side of the mountain, and they need our support — and many are coming from here, and I think it's a travesty that we forget them."
Ward asks that anyone able to help out can call her and find out the specifics, at 503-548-7537.
Sorry, but the complete list of the girls' wish items is not yet available. We will post it next week, on Monday probably.