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Behind Bars, Raising Voices and Spirits

December 31, 2018
Shirley Terrill Holdman, right, joins Rev. Lauren McLeavey, left, and Debbie Ennis, spiritual director, outside Billerica Access Television. They run Bible study groups at the Middlesex County Jail and House of Corrections.

This is the latest in The Sun’s “Be a Volunteer” series.

By Elizabeth Dobbins

edobbins@lowellsun.com

BILLERICA -- For months, five inmates at the Middlesex County Jail and House of Corrections practiced.

Then on Dec. 3, the group performed 10 Christmas songs to a full audience of staff and clergy.

“Those men were not (only) wonderful,” said organizer Shirley Terrill Holdman. “They were great beyond belief.”

For years, Holdman, a longtime Billerica resident and Christian Science practitioner, ran a performance arts studio in Lowell choreographing high school and community musicals across the state.

In May 2017, Holdman and other members of the Billerica Interfaith Association started leading a Bible study group in A-Pod, a general population section of the House of Corrections for sentenced inmates.

“I want it to be something that’s going to help them, that’s going to add to their growth and understanding,” said Debbie Ennis, a non-denominational Christian spiritual director who leads Bible study in A-Pod.

Over time, Holdman started incorporating singing into their sessions. From there, the practice grew into the first Christmas concert, which held last year.

This year, Holdman added a keyboard and brought in Daniel Moore, a retired musical theater director from Framingham High School, to lead rehearsals.

“We need things that make us feel whole,” Holdman said. “We bring out to these men that they each have a purpose.”

The Bible study led by members of the Billerica Interfaith Association of several Christian denominations is one of a number of spiritual options at the facility, according to Brendan Kennedy, a spokesman for the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office. He said volunteers come in to speak with inmates and practice Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism and Islam as well.

Rev. Lauren McLeavey, of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, said the Bible study run by members of the Billerica Interfaith Association generally attracts 10 to 15 people, not all who are Christian.

“More than just religious guidance I think mostly they just appreciate someone to come visit them and not treating them like a prisoner,” she said.

Holdman said she is hoping to plan a spring concert. She is working with the House of Corrections to record the audio, so relatives who are not permitted to attend the concert can listen.

The concert is one of many initiatives on Holdman’s agenda. She is also involved in the town’s under-construction dog park, the annual Family First Night and the Billerica Food Pantry.

Neelam Wali works with Holdman on several initiatives for children including anti-bullying program Stand Up Kids, the “Kids Talk TV Show” at BATV and the Billerica Adventure Series Corp., which has published five books teaching life lessons and local history.

“I think she’s tackling both different generations,” Wali said. “The younger generation and the people who are in prison. I think what she is doing right now is amazing to me. ... She has so much energy that she excites people to be part of the projects that she does.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.

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