At the end of Wildwood Road, far removed from shoppers rushing home with their presents, sits the frost-covered buildings of Wildwood Correctional Center. Behind a chain link fence topped with razor-sharp coils of wire, some 250 Alaska inmates are serving their sentences. Clanking metal gates and locked doors keep them separated from Kenai Peninsula residents.
On Friday, bonds of the heart superseded broken laws of the land. Incarcerated fathers selected Christmas gifts for their children from cafeteria tables piled high with toys brought to the prison by Sharing the Spirit, a cooperative effort of central peninsula charities.
"Tickle Me" Elmo dolls giggled. Toy truck engines roared. Baby dolls smiled through cellophane wrapping. Fuzzy stuffed animals flopped on one another. Building blocks filled red buckets. Hair ribbons were matched with sparkling clips. Watches and CDs sat to one side, special gifts for teen-age sons and daughters.
Emmanuel Pacheco, of Fairbanks, wiped away tears as he carefully selected one present each for his 6-year-old daughter and two sons, 4 and 2. The children live in Fairbanks with their mother. Pacheco said he has served one month of a 16-month sentence. He expects to be transferred soon to Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau.
"This is tough," he said. "I made a big mistake, and now I'm paying for it. There's a saying, 'You do the crime, you do the time.' This is my big wake-up call."
Jesse Faigle, of Anchorage, welcomed the opportunity to select a Christmas present for his 8-year-old son. The boy lives in Seward with his mother. Faigle said he gets to see him once every 10 or 12 months.
"This is really cool," said Faigle, who has been in prison for almost two years.
Usually, he has his father shop for his son. But this year, thanks to Sharing the Spirit, Faigle is able to choose his son's Christmas present.
"This helps a lot of guys stay in touch with their kids," he said. "This is amazing. It's really neat."
Sharing the Spirit began about four years ago when central peninsula organizations joined forces to ensure that those experiencing hardships had food and gifts during the holiday season. This year, thanks to Craig and Jeanie Fanning of the Salvation Army, Wildwood inmates' children are being included in the program. The Fannings participated in a similar effort when they lived in Juneau. After being assigned to the Kenai Peninsula, they suggested including it in this year's holiday celebration.
"This is my favorite project," Jeanie Fanning said. "I don't see these inmates and their crime. I see inmates as dads who are not in a position to go shopping."
Wildwood Superintendent George Miller said the program "fosters the connection between children and their incarcerated parents. You can't ask for anything more in line with the Christmas spirit."
Prior to Friday, inmates eligible for participating in the gift selection were asked to list the ages and gender of their children. With that information, Jane Stein, president of Bridges Community Resource Network's board of directors, organized a massive shopping spree with donated money.
"We realized there were so many people (at Wildwood) that did not have an opportunity to get gifts for their children," Stein said. "And it's no fault of the kids."
Students from Skyview, Soldotna and Kenai Central high schools and younger children accompanied by their parents headed to area stores with cash in hand and a list of what was needed.
"It was so neat because there was just a twinkle in their eyes," Stein said of the shoppers. "It was really exciting."
Price tags were removed from the 150 purchases and the items were transported to Wildwood.
"Are we allowed to buy these?" a correctional officer asked, surprised by the variety and number of toys.
"No, but you're allowed to donate," Craig Fanning said.
Inmates were just as startled by the amount of toys from which to choose. They moved slowly among the tables, picking up items, putting them down and moving to others before making their final selections.
"How many kids do you have?" an inmate was asked.
"Five," he answered. "But I don't know where they all are. They were adopted."
He finally selected one small item, and Stein helped him fill out a card to accompany the toy.
Correctional officers Sherry Lewis and Bill Tracy offered gift suggestions. Hal Fimpel, food service manager, kept count of the number of inmates in the room at any given time. Fimpel is responsible for providing 450,000 meals a year at Wildwood Correctional Center. The smell of Friday's dinner -- chicken fried steak -- filled the cafeteria.
Watching the gift selection, Assistant Superintendent Don Skinner said, "The inmates like this. That's obvious."
Jeanie Fanning and Evy Gebhardt, executive director of Kenai Peninsula United Way, kept the gifts and cards in order. A group of volunteers will wrap and mail the presents in time to reach the children by Christmas.
"This is great," said Brann Wade, manager of the center's substance abuse therapeutic program. "This is the best thing I've seen come in from the outside."
Lorrel Ludy, education coordinator at Wildwood, also praised the effort.
"I'm just overwhelmed," he said.
James Brewer, of Anchorage, has been incarcerated at Wildwood for six weeks. He doesn't have any children, but he has family members living in Anchorage. Watching the fathers select gifts for their children, Brewer spoke about holidays spent in prison.
"There's nothing like Christmas, but it's a different deal in here," he said. "No one wants to miss Christmas and not be near family. America likes to commercialize the holiday, but deep down we know what it's about -- family."
As prisoners completed their gift selections and left the cafeteria, many stopped to express their gratitude.
"Thanks, guys. I really appreciate this."
"God bless you."
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