MILWAUKEE — Sarah Demerath remembers well what it feels like being behind bars, so she knows firsthand how big of an impact something as small as a holiday card can make.
“A lot of the times, you're almost defined by that bad choice and you are always fighting for people to look at you as equal,” she said.
While she was incarcerated Demerath said, her mother would send her a Christmas card every year and for her, that card “meant the world.”
But while inside Demerath, of Milwaukee, noticed so many women like her having to go without even a little holiday cheer, so after her release she decided to help change that.
Beginning in 2018, Demerath started Cards Behind Bars to help incarcerated women feel seen around the holidays. What started with about 50 Christmas cards, put together with the help of her mother and daughter, grew to thousands.
She said once people started learning about her efforts, youth groups, churches, and many who were once incarcerated, were all eager to volunteer.
“I never thought we’d be able to touch those numbers,” she said. “It makes me feel good that there’s so many other people that want to do something to help.”
According to Demerath, last year alone her group was able to send a card to every woman incarcerated in Wisconsin’s prison system, about 2,400 people. The group also continued correspondence with about 150 of those women throughout the year, being sure to send birthday cards.
Demerath said, for a lot of inmates the need for goodwill doesn’t with the new year so the cards end up serving as a way to open a door. Then through her work with the Convergence Resource Center — a Milwaukee-based community service non-profit, she’s helped connect dozens of women to needed resources upon release.
Since 2022, Cards Behind Bars has also branched out to include juvenile detention centers and some county jails in Michigan. Demerath said volunteers have sent Christmas cards in from as far as Texas, totaling about 4,000 cards.
Cards Behind Bars held a holiday card writing workshop Saturday afternoon in Milwaukee. You can help by donating, sending in blank holiday cards or postage stamps.