JACKSON, Miss (BP) -- A tear slid down Nicki Benz's cheek as she stared at the television screen. She struggled to watch the news report that focused on imprisoned women. She figured that most of them had probably been physically and verbally abused at some point in their lives. A guard yelled at one of the women, asking why she couldn't get her life on track.
"They are not trash," Benz said back to the television. "Those women are treasures."
Someone had to take action, Benz thought. This wasn't a report from a distant location. It was happening in her hometown of Jackson, Miss. She bowed her head and prayed for God to send someone. She hadn't yet realized that God would choose to use her, a "senior citizen," to show hundreds of women and children that they are treasures in His eyes.
Now 15 years later, Benz's prison and after-care ministry, Buried Treasures Home, continues to impact lives. Last October, the White House presented her with a Point of Light Award. The award honors individuals who strive to improve their community by responding to a need through volunteer service.
"I just stand here and weep," said the 71-year-old Benz, a member of First Baptist Church of Jackson, as she spoke about the award. "I've done nothing great. I just did what God called me to do … visit the prison to tell the women that they are treasured by God."
What started out as a one-time visit to the local correctional facility in 1999 turned into a daily routine of doling out hugs, lending a listening ear and teaching about God's forgiveness and love. Benz's passion for the women was so contagious that it didn't take long for her husband Dick to join in on the visits.
Soon, an officer asked the couple if they'd consider taking in one of the girls. The woman had been in and out of 40 rehab centers and didn't have anywhere to turn. The Benzes had heard this type of story over and over. When the women left prison, they most often returned to the broken lifestyle that landed them there in the first place. The couple knew this cycle had to be broken, so they offered their four empty bedrooms to God and began an after-care ministry.
"That first woman didn't stay long, just two weeks. Then she was back on the street and landed in jail again," Dick remembered, adding that she returned five years later and completed their ministry program.
"We learned right off the bat that this ministry is hard and doesn't always work. We try to remember that it is up to the women to change their lives. God just called us to be here."
The after-care ministry focuses on discipleship and learning what it means to be treasured. Because so many women have no place to go after being released, Buried Treasures Home gives women and their children a place to live for up to a year. During that time, women receive opportunities to earn their GEDs, enroll at nearby community college, study the Bible and reintegrate into society.
As more and more women wanted to be a part of Buried Treasures Home, the ministry expanded from one house to multiple cottages sitting on a 65-acre plot of land. Benz explained that the women don't just have a "bed but a family of God" when they come to the home. The women learn to be women of God and what it means to be part of a healthy family.
The Benzes estimated that only 20 percent of the women who register for the yearlong after-care ministry actually complete the program. Some stay for lunch and then return to the streets. But they never leave Benz's heart. The names of every woman who walks through the doorway are meticulously recorded in her Bible and prayed for each day.
Others, like Shelly, graduated from the program and integrated back into the community. She now volunteers her time to help others break out of the prison cycle and create their own success stories. Shelly said she believes the time that the Benzes invested in her while she was incarcerated made a difference in her life. They never gave up on her.
"Buried Treasures and God's faithful servants have nurtured me over the years, and have helped me to put my feet on the path that the Lord desired for me," Shelly said. "Buried Treasures has given so much to the incarcerated world these past 15 years…. They are making a difference by showing God's love."
Sherry Stegall, chairman of the board for the Buried Treasures ministry, estimated more than 500 people volunteer annually through time or providing resources for the home.
"Folks seem drawn to the property, dubbed over and over again as 'God's country.' It's said by many that you feel God's presence just as soon as you step foot on the grounds," Stegall, a member of First Baptist Church, said. "As a church, we are passionate about God's ability to transform lives through the Buried Treasures ministry, whether on the serving or receiving end of the ministry."
As the community gives to Buried Treasures Home, the women make a point of giving back. Benz explained the women are "missionaries" to the community. More than 300 children of incarcerated parents are helped each year with school supplies, clothing and Christmas gifts. There's even a community food pantry located at the home. The women help give out the food and keep the pantry filled.
"These women know what it's like to be hungry and in need," Benz said, noting that the women at the home normally have a deep sense of compassion. "They take food out to the cars and sit and talk with people about God's love. Because they understand, there is an openness that isn't there for me.
"We are in the business of bringing people to Christ and showing how they are treasured," she said. "We cry out in joy when that message takes off and grows in the heart of others. That's the real success."
For more information about the Buried Treasures Home, go to http://www.buriedtreasureshome.com/index.htm
Susie Rain is a writer/editor living in Asia. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
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