Holly Ryan (right), shown with Beth Hanan, received an overwhelming response when she asked for yarn for projects at Milwaukee Women’s Correctional Center during the pandemic. (Submitted photo)

For Holly Ryan, helping others is more than a ministry.

“Jesus came to earth and asked us to love one another,” she said. “I’m not doing anything special, except trying to live the way he asked us to.”

She began her work in Ozaukee County in 1992 with the Ozaukee County Jail Literacy program. Due to budget issues, the women knew that it couldn’t be a top priority for the jail, but the sheriff asked them to donate their time and start something small.

“We began with nothing but a cart, a few books, and a paper and pencil,” Ryan said.

But from such humble beginnings grew a literacy program that would later become a national model for other jails. Their programming started once a month; then they had so much to offer, so many who wanted to help, and inmates asking for more. They increased their offerings to once every other week, until they offered classes two or three times every week.

The volunteers helped inmates learn all kinds of skills and helped with the most basic, talking them through the steps to give them the best chance for a future after they were released. They walked them through interview skills and life skills that would help them get a job, and were given the opportunity to earn their GED.

Along with helping to develop that program, Ryan acted as president of the nonprofit for many years, only recently stepping down to focus her energy on other ventures. She said that through her work, she is met daily with the truth that every one of us carries some baggage as we walk through our lives, and that she is lucky to have the life she does, and the chances she’s had. She keeps working tirelessly for the incarcerated because of the life she has; her work is a living prayer of gratitude to God for all she has been given, and an example of Christ’s love to those who may never have encountered him.

“God speaks to us through our passions,” Holly said. “One of mine is education. I think there’s almost nothing more important, and I think he has wanted me to share that.”

Her passion for giving that gift of knowledge grew and led her to the Milwaukee Women’s Correctional Center, a transitional facility for women who have served their prison time and are in transition back to the community.

Much like when she began the Ozaukee County Jail Literacy program, Ryan entered the correctional center and saw that they had almost no programming.

Once they had permission from the current superintendent, Ryan began to assemble more volunteers. She found out what the women in the correctional facility wanted to learn, and set up classes based on their interest.

She arranged teachers to come give parenting classes, and financial literacy classes, each with a certificate in the end. She had a friend who was a former human resources professional teach the women the practical skills that would later help them in interviews and get hired. A doctor came in to answer questions that any of them might have, and set up a separate class to talk to menopausal women.

“It’s amazing how many of them had just never had the chance to talk with a doctor and ask basic questions,” Holly said. “It empowered them, as knowledge always does.”

Ryan said the women were like sponges, that they loved the classes and the opportunity to step away from their lives and learn something new.

They even had the opportunity to teach any skills they might know to one another. One of the women was Native American and proficient at beadwork. Ryan got permission and a list of supplies from the woman who went on to teach her beading to the other women.

“It was a powerful thing to watch,” Ryan said, “that one person who has had a tough hand, teaching others.”

Just before the pandemic hit, the superintendent changed and classes came to a halt. Ryan and her group of volunteers advocated to keep the classes going, and were making some headway, but she said they knew they had to do something. After a few months, when the world realized that the COVID-19 crisis wasn’t going to be a passing virus that would allow the world to go back to normal in two weeks or less, Ryan asked the superintendent to let them bring the women yarn.

“It was something we’d started just before everything got shut down, and a small way for them to keep going,” Ryan said. She knew that there were women in the facility who knew how to crochet and knit, and she also knew that they needed something to keep them motivated to learn and set and achieve goals during long months of idleness.

She put the word out for yarn in the many groups that she volunteers her time in, and received literal car loads from UrbanInitiative MKE, Christ Child’s Society, the Ladies of Malta, the Women’s Club of Wisconsin, the Ladies of Charity, and countless parishes and individual donors.

“It’s such a small thing,” she said. “It’s a few dollars and a couple minutes in a store, but it gives them so much hope.”

Ryan, a parishioner at both St. Francis Borgia, and Three Holy Women, said that she doesn’t feel like she’s doing anything that special, only what God asks each one of us to do. In the beginning, she said she was amazed to see that every woman she met was lovely and kind, each one trying to make a change in their lives.

She asked, “what’s more Christian and faith filled than seeing someone who has repented get a chance, and helping them in any way you can?”