Project helps kids cope with domestic violence

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PENDLETON (AP) — From deep inside Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, a group of inmates has devised a way to comfort traumatized children.

The prisoners spend part of each day making stuffed frogs that eventually go into Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office patrol cars. The officers use the faux frogs at domestic violence scenes or other situations where children are in distress.

Though the prison hasn’t made a formal delivery yet to the sheriff’s office, one frog has already done its job. Solo Reserve Deputy Dave Shotts, also a threat management counselor at the prison, had a prototype frog in his patrol car when he was called to a domestic violence situation. At the home, he encountered a frightened child.

“She was terrified — her mom was going to jail,” he said.

He remembered the frog in his trunk, pulled it out and gave it to the girl. “She clung to it,” Shotts said. “It was a calming influence.”

Days later, at the site of January’s fatal bus crash near Dead Man Pass, the officer wished he had more frogs to give to the youngest accident victims. He is eager to stock up on stuffed animals, which will help “make a good memory during a bad situation.”

Inmate Justin Sol understands. He recalled being separated from his parents as a boy and having an officer give him a teddy bear. His stress eased despite his terror. The gesture made him realize the officer wasn’t a bad guy, that he was just doing his job.

Sol, 26, bent over an ancient Sears Kenmore sewing machine and used a zig-zag stitch to sew frog eyeballs, his long black hair braided. He called the frog squad “a well-oiled machine.”

Sols specializes in making and attaching eyeballs, some of which he sews on cross-eyed. He said the work makes him feel that he is contributing something valuable.

“To be able to make something to comfort a little kid is important and meaningful,” Sol said.

The men came up with the frog design over a couple weeks of experimentation. Inmate William Haynes said the design evolved over a couple of weeks’ time.

“We started with bears,” Haynes said.

They designed a variety of critters, including bears, turtles and frogs. They made prototypes out of scraps from the prison’s garment factory and stuffed the frogs with old socks that had been shredded and medically washed. The men tried out the creatures on children playing in the prison’s visitation room.

“Some of them didn’t pass the stress test,” said inmate Dave Alberts, who sewed bright red frog tongues. He said his favorite animal, a turtle, got its head ripped off in the visitation room.

The frog, however, stood up to heavy loving. It was a go.

Dwight Hawkins, coordinator of Inmate Work Program, said the men’s creativity and problem-solving abilities impressed him and gave the men focus.

“There’s nothing more pro-social than recycling,” Hawkins said. “There’s nothing more pro-social than giving back to the community.”

Inmate Thomas Konschuh, 34, agreed.

“When I get back into the community, I’ll feel like I’ve done something other than waste away in prison,” Konschuh said.

The men say they work on frogs two or three hours each day when there is a lull in their regular work of repairing and repurposing clothing worn by the prison population. The 16-man unit is slowly building up its frog cache — about 50 of them are stacked in Hawkins’ office. When the supply reaches 150, they will present the frogs to the sheriff’s department.

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