Polk City, FL - It's probably the last place you'd expect to find one of Santa's workshops: inside a Florida state prison. But at the Polk Correctional Institution, each year a select group of inmates builds handmade, hand-painted, hand-crafted toys for good little girls and boys.
"We're the little elves," joked Stephen Steedley, an inmate at Polk C.I.
"Yep, this is Santa's workshop," added Brandon Niccoli, who is behind bars for strong armed robbery.
The idea of criminals-turned-carpenters started more than a decade ago and since the program began at Polk C.I., inmates have made more than 5,000 toys.
"We build toys 365 days a year, seven days a week," said Jennifer Selin, a corrections officer who oversees the program.
The toys are distributed to needy kids in Polk County through the Toys for Tots program.
However, officials say the program's success is not measured by the number of wooden toy cars or rockers that are produced; instead it's measured by what the inmates learn.
"A lot of us spent time taking from the community, so really this gives us a chance to give back," inmate Clayton Kammeraad said.
"One of the things that I always look for is what is my meaning in life... and right now my meaning is helping the needy children," said Stephen Muench who has a couple of years to go before he's released from prison.
"This is not my first time in prison, but I think I'm going to get the most out of this time in prison by just participating in this program," Steedley said.
Only a handful of inmates are allowed to participate in the program. In order to be selected from the general population, the inmates can't have any disciplinary write-ups within the past year and they must be nearing their release.
"Yes, we've all made mistakes and it wound us (up) where we're at, but not everybody in here is an evil person. There's a lot of people in here that have a really big heart," Kammeraad noted.
And this holiday season a lot of kids will have a little more holiday cheer thanks to the inmates at Polk C.I.
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