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Worship center, gym at Burnet women’s prison unit closer to reality

Joseph's Hammer closer to fundraising goal

Joseph’s Hammer directors Paige Lechler (left), Davey Haberer, Pam Stevenson, Helen Smith, and Ellen Halbert and Ellen Halbert women's prison unit Chaplain Mark Cartwright announced that the nonprofit is close to raising enough money to build a worship center and gymnasium at the Burnet unit. Courtesy photo

Joseph’s Hammer can now go from talking to doing when it comes to its plans to build a gymnasium and worship center at the Ellen Halbert women’s prison in Burnet.  

“By the end of 2020 and going into this year, we hit 80 percent of our (fundraising) mark,” said board of directors member Pam Stevenson. “That allowed the engineers and key people who need to to come out to the prison and seriously look at our plans.”

Eighty percent is the amount required by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to get professionals moving on making a project a reality. Joseph’s Hammer is only $200,000 away from its $1.2 million goal for the facilities. 

Stevenson had only one explanation for why the group was able to raise so much money during a worldwide pandemic.

“God kept putting it on people’s hearts,” she said.

The 501(c)(3) nonprofit was launched in 2018. By the end of the following year, the fundraising campaign had raised $200,000.

“We were excited in 2020; we had momentum,” Stevenson said. “We were talking to churches and had lots of appointments and speaking engagements. We had traction. Then, COVID-19 hit and we backed off. We didn’t think we should be raising money with people hurting.”

The new, 8,250-square-foot metal building will serve as a gathering place for worship and activities such as sports tournaments and breakout groups. It also will have a baptismal, four large classrooms, a chaplain’s office, and restrooms. That will free up space in the current education building for more classes.

Stevenson has been volunteering as a teacher for 11 years and witnessed firsthand how crowded the classes can get in the only building available for teaching. 

“There’s over 200 volunteers ready to go as soon as COVID lets everyone back in on a regular basis,” she said. “The ladies who come there are only there for six months on average. It’s a treatment program to overcome addiction. For most of the ladies, it’s their first offense with a felony.”

Women in the prison unit begin their day at 3:30 a.m. Some head to the kitchen to cook breakfast, while others participate in workouts or other activities. After breakfast, they clean, either on campus or in Burnet County, or go to addiction treatment classes until lunch. After lunch, those who were in classes perform work or chores, and those who worked in the morning attend classes. They meet back for dinner and help clean after the last meal of the day. A free period begins at 7 p.m.

That’s when it gets crowded. Church members from across the Highland Lakes arrive at the unit to offer Bible-based classes. 

Stevenson recalled cramming 25 people “and barely squeezing each other in.”

“Once we have the worship center, we’ll be able to have several large classes going on at the same time,” she said. “There is no dedicated place for them to worship. They deserve better. It’s a pivotal time in their lives. (God) will meet them there. I’ve seen it over and over. When they have a sparkle, it’s exciting to watch.” 

Lechler said Highland Lakes residents can give to an organization that will change lives in other places.

“(The women) go home to places all over Texas,” she said. “We want people to know the reach we’re going to make.”

Board of directors member Helen Smith agreed.

“How do you know if it works?” she said. “You go back to the prison system. Texas tracks recidivism; that rate doesn’t lie. How many things in their lives have they completed? Some have been in and out of prison. If she has truly made a change in her heart and mind, she is so powerful.”