From Juneteenth to lullabies: Catholic prison volunteers reach out

Reporting from HOMER, Alaska — Cal Williams, a member of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Anchorage, received a letter from a prisoner last June. The inmate asked for a speaker to come to the prison and explain the Juneteenth holiday to other prisoners at Seward’s Spring Creek Correctional Center. The letter was addressed to the Alaska Black Caucus and was passed along to Williams.

The prisoners at Spring Creek Correctional Facility were treated to three shows at Christmas time, presented by members of St. Anthony’s Filipino Gospel Choir and others in an interdenominational musical cast. The musicians traveled to Seward by bus in this first-time effort by people involved in various aspects of prison ministry (Photo courtesy of Cal Williams)

Many might recognize Williams as the elegant, booming-voiced choir leader of the St. Anthony Parish Filipino Gospel Choir, whose music fills the church on Sundays at the 5:30 p.m. Filipino Mass. The music group’s title combines two previously separate choirs, one that Williams led known as a gospel choir that joined with the Filippino one, he said. One Sunday each month, songs are sung in Tagalog.

“After receiving the letter, two weeks later, I went, on June 17,” Williams said. “It was a great experience. When I got there, a group was assembled and they brought out soul food, food they (the prisoners) had prepared themselves. We ate dinner and talked about Juneteenth.”

It was an opportunity to pass along spiritual comfort as Williams gave a talk explaining the significance of the Juneteenth holiday: It celebrates an awareness that slavery was outlawed in Texas on June 19, 1865. The story of how Texas slaves did not know of their freedom until that date resonates through history, he said.

“I talked about sustaining their faith and how the people at that time were free and didn’t know it. Some people are enslaved and don’t know it. Self-awareness was the first step to being free, no matter where you are at,” Williams said. “This was a talk about how to sustain your faith and being self-aware.”

Soon, Williams found himself on call by Spring Creek for more volunteer activities with the prisoners. Another call came, this time to put together a music performance at Spring Creek for Christmas.

The Lullaby Project

Williams also works with Shirley Staten’s group, the Lullaby Project. Staten is getting word out about the upcoming work ahead to reach parents of incarcerated people in Alaska.

For six years, Staten worked with incarcerated men and women at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Anchorage on a project. They work together to create lullabies written by the prisoner to the person’s children, grown or otherwise. The end product is a lullaby recorded on a CD that is mailed to the child.

“This inspirational project makes an impact on everyone, from those who participate to those who attend the concert to the children who get to hear their parent’s wishes for them in musical form,” Staten said.

Staten’s work is funded by sponsors such as the Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska Community Foundation, which will allow her to pay a small stipend this time. Staten will start soliciting parents of the incarcerated this month (February). She will give each parent participant stipends to use in any way they wish.

“The parents are often putting out money – every phone call from jail is paid for by the person receiving the call. They are often sending money,” Staten said. “I talk to everyone in order to reach out to parents this time. I want to let people who might know of a family member of people that want to be involved in the project.

“There’s such a stigma if your child goes to prison. Because of that, this population is often silent. It is not a dinner-time conversation with friends to talk about your son or daughter in prison. That guilt, that shame and all that, most people just hold it in. Writing a piece of music will help put a voice to the feelings. There’s a lot of sadness around having your child incarcerated.”

The project involves having the parents start by writing a letter to the incarcerated son or daughter.

“The letter provides the lyrics. You pull the verses and the lullaby from the letter – it’s what you would be saying in the letter that becomes the lullaby in the form of your wishes,” Staten said. “They work with the musician and record the songs. Then they will have the CD and their family members can have it.”

The project heals wounds and bridges communication that may be broken between family members. One inmate had not heard from her daughter for 20 years. After participating in the project, the woman heard from her daughter in Florida for the first time, Staten said.

The Lullaby Project can be accessed through its webpage (Lullaby Project — Keys to Life Alaska).

Prison requirements for volunteers

Prison volunteers, even those involved in a Christmas concert such as Williams’ group at Spring Creek Correctional Center, require undergoing a screening through the Alaska Department of Corrections. But the process wasn’t difficult, said volunteer Derek Delgado, a St. Anthony’s Filipino Gospel Choir member.

“It was a good experience. Everything went incredibly smoothly,” Delgado said. “There’s a volunteer application that’s one page long, and it goes in with a photo of your ID. Not difficult at all.”

For more long-term volunteer projects, contact Alaska Correctional Ministries, a nonprofit that raises money to help support chaplains in the prisons throughout the state and their programs. Karen Wilbanks, office manager, said ACM trains volunteers and recruits volunteers. The certification, in the form of an ID card issued, must come from the DOC Chaplaincy Office. Applications are available at


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