Someone Cares and the McClures

by Jeffrey Hillard
March 2008
 

Before I sit down in Don and Yvonne McClure’s living room, Don moves a small pile of clothes from the couch to a Don McClure of Someone Cares Ft. Wayne, Indiana  2-16-08 corner.

“You didn’t see that, friend.” Don uses the word “friend” liberally. You can tell he is about friendship, because his life now depends completely on it. As a wild young boy he had many enemies.

On a chair are a few letters from prison inmates and from the McClure’s far-reaching contingent of letter writers to inmates. Back on the kitchen table are no less than seventy-five letters. Most of them came just today. Three stacks of books sit to the side of a beautiful picture window that will eventually allow one to gaze at Don’s sprawling spring garden. He’s anxious for the colors to light up this side of his street.

“Want a book?” he says, nodding at the stacks. “Take one. As many as you want.  I’ll never begin to read them all.”

If you know his life, you know Don McClure should probably not be here to expect such beauty. He certainly thought the last thing he would ever do with his wife is establish likely the largest, inmate-directed, pen friend organization in the world.

Someone Cares, Inc. (www.someonecares.org), Don and Yvonne’s organization, is the central hub – the brain trust, lungs, and limbs – of “Paper Sunshine,” as it’s called, a correspondence empire in which a vast number of prison inmates in all prisons in the U.S. can receive and write letters to pen friends that Don and Yvonne pair them with.

When you realize what Don had to overcome, you could imagine that there’s a degree of probability he might still be in prison, the recipient of one of these letters. But God had other plans for him, as he’s quick to emphasize.

One day, 30-plus years ago, Don heard God distinctly tell him at his high-paying job in California to quit and go to prison. Visit prisoners. Work in this area. When he told Yvonne, a pastor’s daughter, why he quit his job that day, it took a while for this new prospective phase of work to register.

“Yvonne was dumbfounded,” he says. “It was a very strange thing to do, but I knew and I moved quickly.” And he thanks God every day for every phase of prison ministry he’s been lead to, for every letter he and Yvonne can write, for every letter writer they can attract, and for every inmate getting a letter.

The moment you meet Don McClure, you sense you’re meeting a generous person. “I’ll get to these letters later today,” he says, nodding to several neat stacks on the kitchen table.

That’s precisely why he can’t read all the stacked books. His priorities are the letters. Letters are the McClure’s life. They have been for over thirty years.

Today, though, something else is on his mind. Don’s neighbor is dying, and he expresses concern. “I’d like to go over a little later,” he says. “I want to pray.” There is generosity in his voice, the words of only a person consumed with friendship.

The Accident

On November 22, 2006, Don and Yvonne could have nearly written their last letter. Returning home after eating at a Mexican restaurant and making final plans for a trip west to speak about Someone Cares, their car was T-boned at an intersection, the other car smashing into Yvonne’s passenger side.

They could have been killed. Yvonne’s right arm was broken in three places, crushed, and the possibility of her right hand ever healing was doubtful. Don’s shoulder was injured and, looking back, it appears to him that the real damage was done when, in his effort to help Yvonne, he literally yanked loose his seatbelt and tore his shoulder’s rotator cuff.

Miracles occur, however, and in 2007 – their healing year – after numerous doctor visits and many healing prayers later, Don’s shoulder never required surgery and now works painlessly. In fact, when Don turns 75 in June, he plans to play golf, hit tennis balls, and go bowling.

“You can really tell the growth of a ministry,” Don says. “After the accident, in addition to prayer groups forming in churches themselves, our pen friends wrote inmates they were corresponding with, telling them about the accident. This prompted inmates to create groups that focused on praying for Yvonne and me. How great is that?”

Yvonne underwent several surgeries in 2007. The arm and hand injuries also paralyzed her renowned organ and piano playing. In prisons, Yvonne has played piano in chapel services. It’s another gift. Playing music is as natural to her as breathing. Although last year she experienced more therapy than organ playing, she did become able to play, even with a titanium plate securing her arm to her hand. “I call her The Platinum Kid,” Don says.

Someone Cares continued. The accident did not derail the communication for long. Don wrote letters, even though Yvonne could not. “God kept it going,” Yvonne often says. “There was no way he was going to let it stop.”

From The Jet Set to San Quentin’s C-Section

Don McClure started hating when he was 12-years old. It may have started earlier. His life was frequently in danger as a teenager.

After his mother moved the two of them from his native Canada to California, Don started boarding school at the age of six. He learned how to fight and he soon learned hate. When Don came home one day after taking a clothes hanger beating and his mother saw blood, she moved them into “a dumpy apartment,” he says. His trouble did not end there.

From the age of 13 on into late adolescence, Don kept running: New York, Chicago, back to California. During those runs, trouble: gang-fighting, knife-fighting, brass knuckles, drugs, extortion – he helped form a street gang at 13 in New York. He quit school in the 7th grade, and for much of his life operated as a “functional illiterate,” he says. “Each year I became better at what I did, even though I really couldn’t read or write too well. It was wrong, but I was very good at what I did,” he says. “I was very streetwise.” Which means, too, that he inflicted pain on others that he is naturally not proud to recall today.

In 1951 he came back to California, made some more serious mistakes, and was arrested. The judge gave him an ultimatum to join the armed forces, so Don joined the Air Force for four years, which took him to Okinawa. In the early 1970s, amped up on charisma, schemes, and whatever self-destructive measures he could grasp, he made about $5,000 per month.

By the time Don unexpectedly met Yvonne in Cupertino, California on June 13, 1967, he was jet-setting: had money, high-profile California, Chicago, and New York connections, and the lifestyle.

How they met was another miracle in itself: Don was sitting at a bar that adjoined a restaurant. Yvonne had reluctantly joined friends for dinner in the restaurant. As she made her way past the bar to a restroom, she heard Don’s loud bar-voice. Booming, drinking voice. She stopped and bluntly, Yvonne-style, said, “Sir, nobody belongs in a bar.” Don said, “Why?” Yvonne said, “Because Jesus wouldn’t be here.”

It stifled Don. “I wasn’t as much interested in the Jesus thing than I was in Yvonne,” he says. “I thought that was a brash thing to say. I liked brash. So we met for breakfast the next morning. She was a bit hesitant, too. But we met. That began a difficult period. It wasn’t until eight years later, in 1975, that I accepted Christ.”

Until the time when Yvonne finally urged her husband Don to see a cousin-pastor – and Don did, which changed his life – he was drinking a fifth of liquor a day.

“That gentleman, Euell, helped change my life,” Don says. “He first said, ‘Would you like a cigarette?’ That threw me. I said, ‘Well, no.’ Then he began telling me simple stories about Jesus. He quietly said, ‘Don, listen, you don’t need to give up; you need to give in’. That’s what did it for me. Until then, people were saying don’t do this, don’t do that, do’s and don’ts – frustrating me. Whereas, after three hours in his office, I was on my knees. I haven’t been the same since. Everything I’d done for 20 years was cleaned away on my way up off my knees.”

Much of Don and Yvonne’s ministry intensified after this meeting. Yet initially it didn’t involve letters. It involved clothes. In Santa Cruz, California, they established a ministry that provided clothes to incarcerated individuals being released. Even in their reaching-out to inmates at Soledad prison in 1979-1980, they were instrumental helping put the first sweat lodge in that prison.

God one day spoke to Don’s heart, saying, “Time to move.”

“But, to where?” Don asked God.

And about that time, Don threw a dart at a map of the U.S. The dart toss, revealing the place they would move to, landed on Hopkinsville, Kentucky. “We moved there in 1987,” he says. “We decided with a dart.”

From Hopkinsville and volunteer work in several Kentucky prisons, they moved to Michigan, and soon back to California, which presented the greatest challenges that strengthened their resolve to minister to especially hardcore criminals. They soon wound up in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

Their work at San Quentin, though, is legendary. Considered “the God Squad” around the country and with Yvonne’s nickname, “Double Trouble,” and the fact that the McClure’s were issued the first-ever, California prison volunteer Identification badges from the state’s Department of Corrections, their diligent work with inmates reverberated throughout prisons in that state and beyond, attracting admiration from wardens, correction officers, and inmates.

“I give it to Yvonne,” Don says. “She’ll meet inmates’ needs if they’re legit. She made a big impact in California prisons, especially Soledad and San Quentin. She’ll  break the rules, too, always has.”

Playing by the rules, Yvonne actually wrote a dress code for women going into prison in California. And in Soledad once, when a riot broke out and Don and Yvonne were inside the prison at the time, members of the Mexican mafia, risking their own lives as guards aimed rifles at them, escorted Yvonne to the gate and thus safety. As they did, they shouted up to the guards, “Don’t shoot. We’re helping. We’re walking her to the gate.”

“We’re actually the safest people in prison,” Don says. “We’re volunteers, there for the inmates. They recognize we’re not part of the establishment. Plus, there’s a code of honor in prison: you do a good deed to someone, and the inmate will do something good in return. On the contrary, if you do something bad, then you’ll get something bad in return. This is how it works.”

It was in Soledad that Yvonne’s true genius for responding to God arose. She realized that an inmate who had accepted Jesus needed baptism. Yvonne left the prison and went to a nearby WalMart. Just as the store was closing, she spotted a child’s wading pool. “I banged on the door,” she says. She told a clerk she needed it now, saying, “I have someone waiting for this pool in prison.”

When she returned to Soledad with the wading pool, officials said, “No. No pool in prison.” Yvonne countered with, “God says this is how baptism is done, and it’s important to do it.” The officials finally relented and authorized the request, and several inmates filled the pool with cold water.

“I had to press down on the huge body-building inmate to immerse him fully,” Don says.

Don and Yvonne eventually built a baptismal with just plywood and glue for that section of Soledad. They baptized over 300 inmates in a contraption that should never have held water.

McClure’s Pen Friend program originated in one of the worst cell blocks in any prison in the country: the C-Section in San Quentin, the “belly of the beast,” Don says. It was here in this hardcore environment that, as Yvonne recalls, she heard an inmate remark that he had never received a letter or piece of mail in prison. She promised the inmate she’d arrange for someone to write him, and she did. During this moment, Yvonne realized God was nudging her and Don into a new ministry of pen-friendship.

Paper Sunshine

For the thousands upon thousands of letters that Someone Cares’ pen friends have written to prison inmates, there are thousands of stories of transformation and life-changing movements.

The McClure’s Paper Sunshine program is facilitated in every prison in the U.S. Don and Yvonne have personally visited or volunteered in over 40 prisons. The program has even enlisted interested young students to write inmates.

Someone Cares has grown so significantly that currently Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship and Bill Glass’ international prison program are referring all letter-writing inquiries to the McClure’s. They’ve really hit the big time, now.

They need your support now, too. They are seeking letter writers. The process is extremely simple and risk-free. Don emphasizes risk-free. If one person can write just one inmate, that would be a major accomplishment. Someone Cares has 20 people writing 100 inmates each. Hundreds of Paper Sunshine writers correspond with one or more inmates. A few sentences on paper are substantial.

The process is simple: contact the McClure’s. They will match you with an inmate. You will receive an informational page to complete, and in the packet, information from an inmate (his or her interests, experience in Bible study, and a comment). Don’s note to you in the packet will clearly instruct you on what to write in a letter. You will not be unclear.

The important thing is you do not send a letter directly to an inmate. You send your letter directly back to the McClure’s. They also screen incoming letters from inmates. They keep it safe.

The address is: Someone Cares Prison Ministry / P.O. Box 15338 / Ft. Wayne, Indiana 46885. You may email them, too: sdapm@someonecares.org.

Through a partnership between Someone Cares and the Voice of Prophecy organization, inmates can enroll in a Bible Study course. Over one million inmates have completed the course through the partnership.

In their monthly newsletters, the McClure’s publish excerpts of inmates’ letters that discuss how a letter has changed their lives and allowed them to understand God in a new way and to understand how to follow Jesus.

Then, this twist: Don tells the story of a call made by a pen friend to him and Yvonne, in which she breathlessly described how the letters she received from the inmate she was writing lead her to Christ. She’d called Don to thank him and Yvonne.

“The Smelly Inmate”
There was a time, in the early years of their ministry, that most frightened Don and Yvonne. They had already walked past gangs, knives, guns, drugs, alcohol, problematic chaplains, and riots in prisons. Don would later even have a conversation with serial killer Ted Bundy not long before he was executed.

In fact, Don would minister to Don Hawkins, one of the most feared Death Row inmates in U.S. history, who eventually gave his life to Christ and began to exert a hugely positive influence on inmates in the Oklahoma prison where he was later executed. Don McClure would help Hawkins get a vegetarian meal on the Row. Hawkins would pass Paper Sunshine letters to his friends on the Row, connecting them to letter-writing.

But this one time, in San Quentin’s C-Section, in the beast’s belly, one man stood out. At first, Don and Yvonne intentionally walked past him on that run [row of cells], on their way to visit and have Bible study with inmates in C-Section.

Anyway, the first time they entered the run, they could smell him. “Before we turned the corner,” Don says, “it was there, that smell. And his hair – down to his legs. Beard – down to his knees. If there weren’t bars separating us, I believe I would have been his next victim. He was scary.”

The inmate was in “AD SEG,” prison vernacular for Administrative Segregation. Isolation. It was all Don and Yvonne could do to walk quickly past him, trying not to look directly at him.

Several weeks after they continued to meet, talk and have Bible study with other inmates on that “run” – the row of cells – the inmate stopped them. “The inmate said, ‘What are you selling to those guys over there?’” Don says. “This guy said, ‘I’ve got money. How much you need? I’d like to buy whatever it is they have. It’s different around here now.’” And I said, ‘We’re not selling anything.’”

The inmate persisted. He wanted to know. Don and Yvonne explained they were having Bible study with the inmates. They began to talk to the inmate. They eventually lead him to Christ. “Satan won that first round weeks earlier. We walked by him as quickly as we could, scared,” Don says. “But God won in the end. That guy’s out now and in a church in Colorado.”

Stories like this from the McClure’s stack of experiences abound.

The Future
One plan the McClure’s have is to inspire 100 churches to write 100 inmates.

“I think churches are beginning to know what I know about being a friend to inmates,” Don says. “The Lord saw me from the cross and said, ‘You’re going to work for me.’ It took me awhile to see this, but I did.”

There is also hope that Someone Cares will be able to divide its ministry into four, main regional sections, including possibly separating Canada and France into their own sections.

 

I’m about to leave, but Don stops me. He reaches in a hall closet and grabs a copy of “The Passion of Christ” DVD and a recent video-taping of him and Yvonne on a t.v. show. Here he is, again – giving. “Take these.” You get the

impression Don might give something to someone each day, in addition to the letters and hope he and Yvonne give inmates.

As Don and I stand outside, he glances over at the ill neighbor’s house and driveway. He notices a different car. “That’s hospice,” he says. I can tell he wants to go visit soon. He thinks outside of his own condition. He calls me friend one more time. He points to his small front yard.

“I’m very happy now,” he says. “I’m doing all the things I couldn’t do growing up: gardening, golfing, playing tennis, helping neighbors. I’m thankful that everyone knows us in the neighborhood.”

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