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Terry and Debbie Edwards, who take a message of hope behind the bars at Avery-Mitchell
Correctional Institute, hold the title of 2012 Volunteers of the Year within the N.C. Department of
Public Safety’s Adult Correction Division.
Sherrie Norris | Watauga Democrat

Originally published: 2013-01-16 13:39:13
Last modified: 2013-01-16 13:41:54

Prison ministry

by Sherrie Norris

Terry and Debbie Edwards live in Crossnore, work in Boone and, earlier this year, they received statewide recognition for their volunteer prison ministry in Spruce Pine. 

Their talents, skills and compassion reach across more than three county borders. Together, they are changing lives  -- one prison visit at a time.

Among thousands of volunteers who serve in the state's 66 prisons, the Edwards couple holds the title of 2012 Volunteers of the Year within the N.C. Department of Public Safety's Adult Correction Division.
 They were honored earlier this year for their combined efforts in prison ministry at Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine. 

Volunteering is one thing, but taking the Christian message of salvation behind bars is quite another -- especially in a facility that houses nearly 900 medium custody male inmates of varying ages and races -- not to mention religions.

The Edwards couple has volunteered for more than 30 years in the local prison system, and has devoted countless hours to the current Avery-Mitchell system since it opened in 2000.

It started in the early 1980s when Terry helped his fellow Gideons distribute Bibles at the Avery Correctional Center in the Three Mile community. 

The Edwards couple soon joined other local Christians who had earlier formed the nonprofit organization known as High Country Prison Ministry, through which they continue to serve today. 

The smaller setting at the original Avery facility allowed for closer contact with the inmates and their families, Terry said, a great opportunity for the ministry members to show the love of Jesus to those with little hope. 

From paying for a part-time chaplain, leading Bible studies, providing childcare during family visitations and serving home-cooked meals at Thanksgiving and other special celebrations, the ministry grew at a rapid pace.

When the older prison closed in 1998 and the new Avery-Mitchell facility opened two years later, the Edwards couple was not deterred by the size of the modern correctional center -- or the mandates required for the much larger inmate population. 

In the interim, however, Debbie "felt led by the Lord," to begin a preaching ministry at the facility, a confirmation for which she received in a dream, she said. "The message in that dream was that in the last days, women would receive a strong anointing to preach the gospel." 

Her excitement was slow coming, she said, "Because I knew that other people would not understand it."

Currently, on two Sundays a month, more than 100 inmates anxiously await "Miss Debbie's" morning services, where they hear a message of love and grace. 

"I don't go in there and try to condemn them, I just share the truth of God's word with them. They've already been condemned. While I believe they should be punished for their crimes, I also believe that Jesus offers them a kind of freedom that many of them will otherwise never know."

Debbie continues to work with Terry within the High Country Prison Ministry, also, as a volunteer for special events; they just recently helped coordinate the highly-anticipated annual Christmas dinner at the facility.

'For three nights in a row," she said, "we helped serve home-cooked meals for the inmates. We fed 300 each night, but worked for weeks before, to pull it together." 

Local churches, businesses and individuals from both Avery and Watauga Counties volunteer to help make the meals a success every year, Debbie said, by not only supplying the food, but also going into the prison to help serve. 

"We play Christmas music and try to make it as special as we can," she said. 

In the summer, the couple plays a big part in the "One Day with God" camp, during which a child and his or her incarcerated father have one day inside prison walls to reconcile with one another and spend time together with God-anointed mentors working beside them. The day is filled with special activities including games, music, lunch and a parent and child quiet time for those 25 "great dads," Terry said, who have been selected, based on their behavior and interest.  

The couple was nominated for their volunteerism award through a collaborative effort of Johnny Woodring, correctional program supervisor, and Jacob Willis, volunteer chaplain, who have witnessed not only their "work" through the years, but also the affects of their dedicated service.

They described Terry Edwards as "a devoted man of God" and one who plays a vital role in the ministry, morale, and mentoring at the center, calling him "the most steady and faithful volunteer the prison system has ever seen." 

Terry is a great example of Christian male leadership, the prison officials said. "His character and love for Christ shines forth in the areas where he serves."

In their nomination, the men described Debbie as "a gifted teacher of the Word," and said that she easily as a heartfelt concern for inmates and staff, alike.  

"She promotes the ministry here at the prison and coordinates the donation of hundreds of books and bibles every year for our library," said Woodring. "She also recently raised funds to buy a new drum kit for the chapel." 

Both Woodring and Willis pointed out that the husband-wife team has also been instrumental in raising "thousands of dollars each year" for special programs and events within the prison ministry, as well as indigent funding for inmates being released.

The Edwards couple has also made lasting friendships with some of the inmates and has maintained contact with several, after they leave.

"We have seen how God has changed the hearts of many men in that prison," Debbie said. "Some in there are as close to God as many people are outside the razor wires. We try to help them understand that their past doesn't have to determine their future. It's not always about behavior modification, she said, "but about heart transformation." 

Terry Edwards is in his 29th year as internal auditor at Appalachian State University. Debbie has worked at Cornerstone Christian Bookstore in Boone for 11 years.

They are longtime active members of Plumtree Presbyterian Church in Avery County. They have two daughters and two grandchildren.