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$53,000 Donation by Michigan Prisoners Helps Keep Kids in School

“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” - Victor Hugo

No one knows this better than the 35 inmates who wrote letters to students attending Pathways to Potential schools across Michigan last spring. In fact, this quote was pulled from one of those letters.  

 Little girl in school uniform

The Michigan prison inmates are part of the Chance for Life program, developed by metro Detroit leader Tom Adams. Mr. Adams was instrumental in giving the Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) the opportunity to speak with prisoners about the critical need for uniforms to help children stay in school.

Since the program began in 2012, 25 prisons and re-entry programs throughout Michigan donated over $53,000 to Dress Them for Success, the department’s uniform purchasing project benefiting kids in Pathways to Potential schools. Women at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility empathized with stories about children being teased or not showing up for school because their clothes didn’t fit. The women stated that if a Pathways worker had been stationed in their school when they were younger, then maybe they wouldn’t be in prison today.

After learning about the program, the women at Huron Valley submitted a check for $20,000. As the word spread, the dollars poured in and according to the letters, the inmates were proud to invest in a program that promoted education. A program that keeps kids in school.

Beyond Funding – Sharing Lessons Learned
In total, nearly 6,000 uniforms have been purchased with funds from the prisons, DHS staff and other donors. That alone is remarkable. Yet, DHS saw an opportunity for inmates to give more. They asked them to share, in letters to the students, why it’s important to stay in school. Michigan inmates were honored and  thankful for the opportunity to prevent a child from traveling down the road that led them where they are today.

 Excerpt from a letter from Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility 

Excerpt from a letter from Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility

You Are Our Future
The letters are profound and written from the heart to children they see as the future of our country and the world.

“You are very important to us because our future rests in your hands,” wrote one inmate. “The more you learn…the better equipped you will be to solve any problem that you may encounter as a future world leader,” wrote another.

The inmates did not disappoint when it came to articulating the importance of attaining an education. “Education is the true pathway that leads to having a chance for a more successful life,” wrote a man from Lakeland Correctional Facility. Another inmate wrote:

Dear future Leader excerpt from letter

And, if you don’t stay in school …
No wisdom from the inside would be complete without warnings of the perils of not staying in school. One inmate begged his readers to stay in school:

“Lack of education will put you in a position where it’s near impossible to do anything other than enter into a life of crime which is sure to lead to one of two places – prison or the graveyard. Neither of which is where I want to see you end up because you are the future of not only this nation but the world …”

Another delivered an equally sobering warning with far fewer words. “I used to like elementary school a lot; that was until I had trouble with math.” She goes to explain how she eventually dropped out after repeating two grades and closed with this sobering line:

Please Stay Focused excerpt from letter

While the children may not understand the full impact of the donations, they are very thankful for their uniforms. Their thank you notes demonstrate the donation goes far beyond meeting a basic need. It impacts their social and emotional development as well.

Dear Nice Person excerpt from letter

“Thank you for the shirt, without it people would make fun of me.”

“Thank you for getting me some clothes for school. If you need something I will help you out.”

“Thank you for the uniform…it makes me feel included with the rest of the kids.”

Reading the packet of letters from the prisoners (43 pages in all), one can’t help but be struck by the emotional outpouring of support these adults express for children they’ve never met. Nearly every letter speaks to how proud the writer is of the student and how much they believe in their potential as future leaders, scholars, and as one inmate puts it, “a super hero, the next LeBron James, Gabby Douglas…or even President of the United States.” Another wrote, “Please continue to make us proud. If there’s anything else we can do to help, let us know!”

How can such compassion be generated for children these prisoners have never met?

I am proud of you

Perhaps, the thank you letters from the children took the prisoners back to a time when they were in school and felt a little out of place. It’s clear this cross-systems partnership has tremendous potential to extend far beyond uniforms. And the project, Dress Them for Success, demonstrates beautifully how the “ask” often times benefits the donor as much as, if not more than, the recipient.

This article is one of a series highlighting community partners working with DHS to improve attendance in Michigan schools. Through Pathways to Potential, Department of Human Services has placed success coaches and other employees in over 200 schools across the state. These people work one-on-one with families to identify and remove barriers to children attending school. We are always looking for new partners, volunteers and donors. Visit to learn how you can get involved.