A woman in Columbus, Ohio, Janese Boston, works to keep local children connected to their incarcerated parents through her annual Build a Bond toy drive.
Boston, 38, buys hundreds of toys each year and distributes them to children of incarcerated parents through a partnership with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office.
“Leaving the presents is by far one of the [reasons] why I do it,” Boston told “Good Morning America.” [or dad] sent me here to give you the gifts.”
“They look at me like, ‘Oh my God,'” she added of the kids’ reaction.
Boston said she started collecting toys because she knew firsthand how hard it was to be in prison as a parent. She served four years in prison, a sentence she began in 2003, just 30 days after giving birth to her first child.
Boston’s son, who is now 18, lived with his aunt while she served her sentence.
“As a parent being in jail for so long, leaving my baby at such a young age, my biggest concern was that my son would know me when I got home,” Boston said. “My aunt did a great job of making sure I was in touch with my son. She showed him pictures. She took him to see me. I was able to talk to him on the phone.”
“Just those little milestones, during my time, it helped keep me on track,” she said. “It helped me realize that I had to work to be a better person and make better decisions.”
When Boston was released from prison in 2007, she began caring for her son full-time and getting her life back on track. She used the college credits she earned in prison to earn her associate’s degree, but said she still struggled to find a career.
After giving birth to her second child, a daughter, Boston enrolled in culinary school. After working odd jobs in the food industry, she started her own private chef business in Columbus and then began giving back to the community.
Boston knew she wanted to help parents in prison stay in touch with their children and came up with the idea of the Christmas toy drive.
“There’s nothing else in a million years I’d rather do than try to help [a parent] it’s incarcerated because I know myself, I was lying in bed, praying and hoping that they can make sure my child has a good Christmas, ”she said. why when I’m shopping for these kids, the most important thing is to make sure every toy is something these kids will want and be super happy their parents gave them.”
Franklin County Sheriff’s Office Social Services Director Tresalyn Butler is working with Boston to identify a dozen parents for the toy drive. Parents must meet certain criteria to show they are working to prepare for life outside prison, according to Butler.
Once the parents are identified, Butler and Boston send letters to the children’s guardians, who then send back gift forms containing information such as the sizes of the children’s clothes and their Christmas wish list.
From there, Boston spends several weeks shopping to ensure that each child has gifts personalized to their wishes.
“There’s a part of me that feels like I have a duty to make sure every connection with parent and child is phenomenal,” she said. “When they put the toys in their hands or the clothes on their bodies, it’s a positive bond between them and their parents.”
Boston continued, “Whether it’s once, playing with it five times, or every time they put on their coat or their shoes, they know their parents, wherever they are, still made it through. to give them something for Christmas.”
When Boston delivers the presents to the children at home before Christmas, they also bring a handwritten letter from their parent. She said she takes the opportunity to tell them that she too is a mother who has spent time in prison.
“I tell them, ‘I was the parent. I get it,'” she said. “Last year, when I took my son with me, I said, ‘He was my son. I was the one who was in prison.'”
Butler said collecting Build a Bond toys can often help the parent in jail as much as it helps their child.
“For our parents, it’s a big deal. Some of them are the only breadwinners for their families. For our fathers, maybe it was about providing more money than looking after of children, and we know statistically that the majority of incarcerated mothers were the primary caregivers for their children before incarceration,” she said. “It allows them to provide for their children at some point. where their hands are tied. I think that gives them hope.”
Butler said she’s also seen collecting toys help start conversations between children and their parents, saying, “One family in particular, I remember them ripping up their gifts and they were super excited and they wanted to speak to their mother and let her know what they had received. It’s always super cool because it stimulates conversation between parents and their children during what can be an uncomfortable time in their lives.
Money for the toy drive comes from fundraising Boston does on social media and in the community. The sheriff’s office does not provide any funding, according to Butler.
Butler and Boston each said they hope to expand the toy drive to include more parents and children and hold similar events throughout the year, rather than at Christmas.
Butler said she sees children as “the forgotten element of incarceration” and hopes that by continuing to strengthen the bond between parents and children, it will create a better future for parents and their families.
“I hope it sparks something in them that they either continue to hold it while they serve their sentence or continue to hold it once they’re released back into the community,” she said. “To me, if we as a community are to break the cycle of incarceration, then we need to give it the attention it deserves.”
Boston called it a “dream come true” to be able to give back to incarcerated parents.
“I spent days in prison hoping I could give back and all these years later I’m giving back in ways I never could have imagined,” she said. “I’m so thankful that I found myself and got an education, had a business and that God put me in a position to even do this.”