Purdy prison crew gets to play Santa’s helper each Christmas

Dimple Blake and Karrie Coates blew up 1,400 basketballs in two days for Pierce County children who might not otherwise have a Christmas.

They’re not typical Santa’s helpers.

The women, helping sort through Toys for Tots donations this holiday season, are two of nine inmates serving time at the women’s prison near Purdy.

“It’s no cheap, hand-me-down stuff,” said Blake, 50 of Tacoma. “It’s a blessing. Even when I get out, I would volunteer down here in a heartbeat.”

The Washington Corrections Center for Women sends its community service crew to help at the Toys for Tots warehouse in Tacoma on Mondays through Thursdays from November to February. They help prepare donated toys for South Sound children.

This is the fourth year Toys for Tots has contracted with the prison.

It’s no small task. The nonprofit organization distributed about 50,000 toys last year, including books and stocking stuffers.

The women earn $1 per hour for their service, paid for by Tacoma-Pierce County Crime Stoppers, not from money donated to the Toys for Tots program.

With insurance, wages and mileage compensation, their labor costs about $3,000 annually and is covered by donations from the Puyallup Tribe.

It’s one of the most coveted positions at the prison, the workers said, because it lets the women leave, under the supervision of a guard. They also earn more than the typical wage for a job at the prison, which they said is 42 cents an hour.

“You’re very grateful just to be getting out of the institution,” said 67-year-old Suzanne Foss of Vaughn.

And they like the cause.

“Everything that comes is given back to the community,” said Coates, 31, of King County. “Every single toy. That’s I think the coolest part about it.”

The nonprofit has no trouble in the years it’s contracted to work with the inmates, said George Hight Jr., the co-coordinator for the program, who represents the Marine Corps Reserve.

The Reserve and Tacoma-Pierce County Crime Stoppers run the nonprofit.

“We have a hard and fast rule here here,” Hight said. “Everybody treats everybody with respect.”

Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer, who also helps with the program, said items such as hair dryers, curling irons, shaving kits, deodorant and makeup are especially needed donations for teenagers.

“Things people take for granted, that’s stuff that a lot of kids don’t have,” he said. “Thirteen-, 14-, 15-year-old girls don’t want toys.”

The program ensures the workers’ families get gifts, too. Blake said she was grateful they were helping her grandchildren have a Christmas this year.

The women don’t get to see the toys delivered throughout the community, but they said they know they’re going to good homes.

“There are really that many kids in foster care, in low income and shelters,” Blake said. “It’s a blessing just to see how much is donated.”

They still have lots of work to do this season. The biggest toy drive of the year is Friday (Dec. 12), and the women will be back at the warehouse next week.

“I’ll stay back here all day long,” Blake said. “I love basketball.”

That’s good, because she said they still have about 400 left to inflate.