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Women’s prison chapel supporters witness effort taking shape

Kamilah Coger, Helen Smith, Pam Stevenson

Ellen Halbert Unit Senior Warden Kamilah Coger (left) visits with Joseph’s Hammer board members Helen Smith and Pam Stevenson on March 18, 2024, at the construction site of a chapel the nonprofit is building for inmates at the women’s prison in Burnet. Staff photo by Nathan Bush

For the past six years, cancer survivor and Joseph’s Hammer board member Helen Smith has helped raise money to build a chapel next door to the Ellen Halbert Unit, a Burnet prison for women battling substance abuse.

On March 18, Smith saw how that work has started to pay off during a site tour of the now-under construction facility with other board members, supporters, and media. Crews recently poured an 8,250-square-foot slab, laying the foundation for the chapel and study rooms for the inmates.

“I can’t believe it!” Smith said from her wheelchair being steered by husband Dave.

One of four founding members of Joseph’s Hammer, Smith has been integral to the nonprofit’s crusade to raise over $2 million to build a worship center next to the prison.

“She’s a powerhouse,” said group chairman Pam Stevenson.

The tour was the first time the full board saw Smith since she was admitted into hospice over a year ago.

“She lived to see this day,” member Lynn Zinnecker said.

Organizers started the project about six years ago to provide more class space for inmates. Members of Hill Country Fellowship of Burnet have been teaching the women for over 10 years. 

The classes were so popular that many inmates were unable to attend.

“It would be like if you went to church on Sunday morning and the pastor was standing at the door and saying, ‘We’re at capacity. You can’t come in,’” Zinnecker said.

The new chapel should solve that issue.

“Every woman has a right to experience God,” she said. “With this, they will.”

The effort to build the chapel wasn’t easy.

“With every single obstacle we’ve faced, we’ve kept on going,” Zinnecker said.

Costs for building materials in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly doubled the price tag of the chapel and further prolonged construction.

“We kept trying to fundraise,” Zinnecker said. “We never stopped.”

Standards set by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the entity that governs prisons in the state, added to the project’s lengthy timeline.

“It was a long and laborious process,” Zinnecker said. “It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just how the system works.”

Large doses of patience, persistence, and prayer ultimately paved the way.

“We just kept at it,” Zinnecker said. “God has been all over it. He’s opened a door and made a way, every single time.”

Ellen Halbert Unit Senior Warden Kamilah Coger can’t wait to see the chapel in all its glory.

“We’re excited to know that we’re going to have a place of worship for our administrators, volunteers, and clients here that they can go to,” she said.

Coger is equally excited to see the impact the chapel’s programs will have on the inmates.

“They’re going to have more time to spend with volunteers,” she said. “They’ll be able to socialize and network with people outside of the unit and communicate with people that really care about their well-being.”

Joseph’s Hammer board members and donors hope to cap off the past six years of work by opening the chapel’s doors in the next year.

“It will be the chapel that God built,” donor Jan Burrows said.

Smith is already planning her return to the site when that day comes.

“I’ll bring my boa next time,” she said with a laugh.