Sandbagging filled prison resident with joy of serving God, others

She has advice for people inside, outside prison walls


When the rivers were rising, spilling over their banks and encroaching on homes, farms and businesses, people from all over Missouri stepped up to help.

Men and women from four state prisons were among them, helping with sandbagging efforts in Clarksville, Norborne, New Franklin and Kimmswick.

“It was an amazing, very humbling experience,” said Jean Solis, a resident of the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (WERDCC) in Vandalia, who helped with the sandbagging in Clarksville.

“I just wanted to go out and help them,” she said. “It was the best feeling in my whole life.”

She knows where that desire and the peace and satisfaction that came with it are from.

“From Jesus, for sure!” she said. “He gave us Himself, and that’s what we should all want to do.”

Ms. Solis has been a resident at WERDCC for 10 years and hopes to be released in a few months — around Christmastime, her favorite time of the year.

She attends Mass every Tuesday in the prison’s multipurpose room.

“It helps me feel at home,” she said. “It’s what makes me feel the closest to my family.”

She grew up in suburban St. Louis, the last of eight children born to her devout, prayerful parents.

She received baptism, First Holy Communion and confirmation and went to Sunday Mass with them.

In high school, she discovered her passion for living on the edge. The rest is kind of a blur for her.

“My history is very colorful,” she acknowledged.

She spent some time at Queen of Peace Center in St. Louis, a Catholic ministry to women in recovery for substance abuse.

Marrying young, she struggled through recovery and wound up paying for it with several prison sentences.

She became a mother at age 16. Drugs took a toll on her relationship with her daughter and the rest of her family.

About 10 years ago, she met some members of a nondenominational Christian congregation while awaiting trial in a county jail.

“I think that’s when things started to change,” she said.

They stood by her and prayed for her throughout her trial, visited her in prison and have offered her help and fellowship when she gets back out.

“Offer it up”

While in prison, Ms. Solis completed her G.E.D., became a certified fitness trainer and started work on a college degree in communication arts and substance abuse counseling.

She has worked to curb her complaining and to embrace trials and setbacks with serenity and a joyful heart.

Father Louis Dorn, volunteer Catholic chaplain for WERDCC and the Bowling Green Correctional Center, advised her that bearing suffering graciously in this life can help prepare her to spend eternity with the Lord in the next.

“So I’ve been learning to offer it up,” she said.

She volunteered to assist with the Canines Help Achieve More Possibilities (CHAMP) program. CHAMP gives residents of Missouri prisons a chance to help train rescued dogs to serve as therapy and companion animals for children and adults.

She said the women in her housing unit have become like a second family to her — “dysfunction and all!”

As part of the prison’s work release program, she got to spend time with residents of a local nursing home.

“That was one of the most lovely experiences I’ve ever had,” she said.

She once spent an afternoon with an elderly woman there who knew she was close to dying.

Placing some scented lotion on her fingers, Ms. Solis gently told the woman, “I’m going to put some vanilla lotion on you so that when you get to heaven, Jesus knows it’s you.”

Ms. Solis struggled to find words to describe the time she helped clean the body of a woman who had just died.

“I was not afraid or nervous,” she said. “I think I was excited and so happy that she was going to be with Jesus in heaven.”

“Make every day count”

Ms. Solis would like to go back in time to put her gifts from God to better use, but that’s not possible.

“So now it’s time to make the best of what’s left,” she said. “I’m letting God guide me now.”

She urges her fellow Catholic Christians in prison and all who follow and serve the Lord behind bars not to waste any of the time God has given them.

“Try to make every day count, even while you’re in here, so your journey to the next life will be smoother,” she said.

“Don’t be mad at everybody,” she added. “Don’t be cranky. Don’t be bitter. We all got ourselves here, one way or another. So just try to make the best of it,”

“And help people whenever you can. Take that opportunity whenever you get it.”

For people on the outside who have never been in prison or jail, she asked for forgiveness, mercy and kindness for those who have.

“People need second chances,” she said. “In my case, maybe a fifth chance. But you never know what a person is going through or what they’ve been through.

“So please, treat people as if you are in prison yourself,” she said. “You just might find someone who is willing to do just about anything to make up for the bad things they’ve done in life.”

Her favorite Scripture passage is Hebrews 13, which begins: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.”

“I am no angel,” she stated. “But I don’t think I’m here because I’m a bad person. I’m here because I have made some horrible decisions in my life.

“But I can change, and I believe that I have changed.”

Once outside, she plans to continue pursuing the Christian life, which starts with avoiding sin, doing what’s right and fully relying on God.

“Being Christian doesn’t mean you don’t slip up,” she said. “I used to thrive on doing crazy things. Now I’m excited about serving the Lord and helping people.”

Without ceasing

Ms. Solis said she’ll always treasure how kind and thankful the people of Clarksville were to her and the other prison residents during their time together on the sandbag detail.

She asks for prayers for reconciliation within her family, which has experienced some sadness and division since her parents died.

She asks for God to look out for her daughter and restore the relationship between them — in this life or the next.

“I pray for her every day and especially on Tuesday at Mass,” said Ms. Solis. “I pray that she has Jesus in her life.”

She is grateful to God for the nondenominational Christians who insist on helping her succeed after she is released.

“But I’m never going to get rid of my Catholic heritage,” she said. “I really love my Catholic faith.”

Staying close to Christ, Sacred Scripture, the Eucharist, the Blessed Mother and the prayerful intercession of the saints in heaven and those still striving on earth helps her stay connected and renewed.

Aware that all places where people follow the Lord can be holy ground, she’s looking forward to going to Mass in a beautiful church, rather than the multipurpose room in the prison.

She wants to visit St. Joseph Church in Louisiana, where Fr. Dorn was stationed when he began visiting the Vandalia prison.

It’s also where her aunt and uncle used to go to Mass when she would visit them as a child.

She saw it again on her way to Clarksville.

“I want to see how beautiful Mass can be in a place like that,” she said.