Nestled in the heart of Huntsville, Texas, and surrounded by nine Texas Department of Criminal Justice prisons, Hospitality House cares for more than 3,000 innocent people each year—the family members of Texas prisoners. The women and their children are victims of tough and complex situations, created through no fault of their own. Their love and support of an imprisoned family member often creates a logistical nightmare. How can they afford to safely visit a long-distance loved one in Huntsville, maintain the best possible family life, and lessen the odds their children will follow the path to prison?
Hospitality House Executive Director Debra McCammon and husband Joe, a chaplain and special education teacher, are making a difference in the lives of these families. Hospitality House is also the McCammons’ home, and they keep it open to guests seven days a week with help from countless volunteers.
“We can have a huge impact,” Debra says. “We can keep families safe, we can love them, and we can try to help prevent their children from also going to prison. Without a safe shelter, many moms and kids have spent the night in a car in a Huntsville parking lot, washing up the next morning in the public bathroom of a store or restaurant–wherever they can. This has been a reality for many families who visit our town in this situation. They have been faced with financial hardship and ostracized because they have a family member in prison; it doesn’t have to be this way. We can give women and children temporary shelter, food, TDCJ orientation, and spiritual support at no cost to them, all the while offering a positive experience.”
Huntsville’s Hospitality House was built by 270 Texas Baptist volunteers in 1986. The event was a 24-hour “build-out” using donated funds and materials. The house is a 7,000 square foot facility two blocks from the Huntsville “Walls” Unit prison, and it includes 16 bedrooms that sleep 52 guests. As renovations take place, that number could reach 64.
The McCammons are the third set of directors for the House, and their ministry background readied them for the challenge. Debra is a non-stop burst of energy, on her feet from early morning to late evening serving as hostess, cook, promoter, coordinator, and cheerleader. Debra and Joe’s faith and positive attitudes make it possible for them to live at the Hospitality House and reach people in some of life’s most difficult circumstances.
“We house families for weekend visits, release times, marriage seminars, hospice visits, funerals, informational conferences with TDCJ, and executions,” Debra says. “The women who stay here remark that we are not judgmental that they are married to someone in prison, and others are surprised we love them even though their son is incarcerated. I remind them these men are adults and made their own choices. The families did not choose to have a son or husband in prison.”
Guests to Hospitality House are greeted by fresh linens, warm welcomes, and a crazy-quilt of Texas-themed bedrooms with names like Rodeo, Yellow Rose of Texas, Longhorn Room, Homestead, and Blue-Bonnet. “There’s even a room honoring 87-year-old volunteer Lucille Walls of Crabb’s Prairie, who has been coming here every Friday for 17 years,” Debra says. “Lucille loves roosters and chickens, so her friends named this room ‘Lucille’s Eggery’ and gave it a coop look.”
“Church and community groups have been generous in furnishing the rooms,” Debra says. “These include First Baptist Church of Huntsville, First United Methodist Church, Huntsville Church of Christ, Crossroads Baptist Church of the Woodlands, Hilltop Lakes Chapel, First Baptist Church Calvert, Tallowood Baptist Church of Houston, Chapel Hill High School Art Club, Huntsville Girl Scouts, Sam Houston State University (SHSU) Kats for Christ, Dallas County Cowboy Church, and First Baptist Church of Conroe.
A cheery, coffeehouse-style kitchen in deep red and black is the heart of the home. This is where Debra juggles menus and cooking to maximize meals and leftovers for 50-60 guests every weekend. “My wishlist includes a commercial freezer, a washing machine, and two new stoves to meet the challenge of heavy-duty food preparation,” she says. “We’re cooking for a lot of families and hungry kids.”
The “kids” give the Hospitality House its urgency, as the McCammons and volunteers are concerned about their future. “How do we make this whole thing work for the moms and their families?” Debra asks. “How do we help them keep the family unit together? The success of the children staying out of prison depends on keeping the family together. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, get into trouble, and be incarcerated. This is one reason we use therapeutic art sessions, led by SHSU art professor and Hospitality House volunteer Edie Wells.”
A new home for the art sessions is being created, a Children’s Activity Building. It’s an inviting structure next to the main house. Local artist Dan Phillips designed the structure, which is trimmed with walls of corks and reflective computer CDs. Texas Baptist Men, Crossroads Baptist Church of Marshall, the Huntsville Junior Service League, and SHSU students have lent a hand to this project. An intricate tile mosaic floor is underway, featuring animals and nature scenes. Stacks of large, decorated ceiling panels created by the children who stay at the house are ready to be used, building ownership in the new facility. Near the children’s area, a Santa Shop is being readied for next holiday season. New donated toys are sorted and waiting for mothers to pick out gifts for their children when they come to Huntsville. “It’s not unusual to see tears on the faces of mothers who are relieved they can have a gift for their child at Christmas,” Debra says.
Kids are again top priority inside, where a colorful playroom awaits them, stocked with toys, puzzles, and board games. The area is brightened with animal murals painted by art students from Mt. Pleasant, Texas. A library area also awaits children and adults, and everyone is encouraged to read and take books with them. The books are donated, and Debra uses this opportunity to pair Education students from SHSU with children, encouraging them to read or study as needed.
“Seventy percent of children who have a loved one incarcerated will end up going to prison themselves,” she says. “This is all about what we can do to help turn their world around and make better choices.”
Adults and children can also relax in the peace of the central living room, where large aquariums line the room, and flat screens offer soothing music, beautiful scenes, and scripture. “We try to create a safe haven and refuge away from the chaos, stress, and commotion as they visit with their loved ones in prison,” Debra says.
“Hospitality House is a faith-based mission, supported by volunteer hours and private donations from churches and individuals who believe in what we’re doing,” Debra says. “We need financial gifts, but we also accept furniture, clothing, and food. Financial donations keep the place going.
“We also need healthy canned foods for the families to take home, like canned meats and fruits, beanie weenies, or ravioli – things a child could open while the mother is working. They need healthy snacks for a long trip home, like peanut butter crackers or bagged nuts, and we keep a grocery list on our website.
“We need volunteers in every area. We need people to come in and fold clean linens, help clean the house, work on maintenance projects, stick mailing labels on the newsletter, organize art supplies, read with children, and pray for families.” Debra said local volunteers helping with these tasks come from First United Methodist Church, Calvary Baptist Church, First Baptist Church, Northside Baptist Church, Faith Lutheran Church, University Heights Church, Trinity’s Burning Hope/House of Hope, Elkins Lake Baptist Church, and SHSU. “We even have publishing help from Mark McMurray, who manages our website and Chris Blair, who designs our publications,” Debra says.
“We’ve been blessed with tremendous interns from SHSU. Susie Stone of SHSU sends them our way. Interns have to do three things—listen, labor, and love. They contribute 400 hours of service per semester, and they bake, cook, answer the phone, greet visitors, teach good health practices, do whatever is required, and keep a journal of their experiences. SHSU interns this semester include Paige Momberg, Rebecca Smith, Brittany Thomas, Madison McGowan, and Mykeshia Burrell. Debra and Joe are also assisted by Development Coordinator Jamie Bozarth, who coordinates volunteers and writes grants, and by Financial Secretary Rebecca McBroom.
Every week, Debra speaks to groups about Hospitality House and conducts several tours. She also coordinates fundraisers for Hospitality House, such as an upcoming Ladies’ Tea on May 2nd, “Hats Off to Moms!” “We encourage local women and churches and also those from out of town to attend,” she says. Details are on their website.
“I’m always happy to share the mission of Hospitality House and try to build awareness of what’s really happening here in the lives of these women and children,” she says. “It’s very challenging to turn around the angst someone might feel for these visitors. People are discovering how exciting it is to help with this ministry.
“You never know who’s going to walk through the door or what’s going to happen. Every day is different,” she says. “I love fundraising, speaking in the community, telling our story, cooking for guests, and comforting them when they arrive tired, frightened, and hungry! One young visitor told me,‘This house feels so peaceful and homey. When I imagine what Heaven will be like, I imagine a place just like this.’ What more could I want? This is a labor of love. We invite everyone to join us in making it a success.”
912 10th Street
Huntsville, TX 77320
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