Kids these days often stump for good causes. But for prisoners?
Tom Constertina, a sixth-grade student at St. James School in Arlington Heights, decided to donate his own money to buy Bibles for people behind bars. By telling others of his cause, Tom has inspired donations totaling more than $2,000, enough to buy 600 Bibles designed especially for prisoners.
Like many causes, this started small.
Early this year, Tom felt inspired to donate $100, most of his Christmas and birthday money, to start the ministry.
Being a modern young man, he went online and found Bibles called "Free on the Inside," especially designed for working with prisoners. And with the help of his father, Jim, he started his own website, Biblesbehindbars.com.
Soon a group at Orchard Evangelical Free Church, which has an Arlington Heights campus, contributed, and Tom ordered his first three cases of 24 bibles.
He credits God with touching his heart and instilling the desire to do this.
"We all have bars and chains in our lives," said Tom. "We are all enslaved to sin and all need to be free. This is particularly true for prisoners. Maybe they are in there for life, but they can still be free in their hearts."
Even Tom's mother, Cyndi Constertina, does not know how Tom got his inspiration.
The Arlington Heights family -- Cyndi and Jim and their two sons, Tom and T.J. -- has participated in a service group for three years, but working on more common suburban causes like food pantries and homes for people with disabilities.
"It was about a year ago he drew this picture of a man behind bars receiving a Bible and having his life changed," said Cyndi Constertina.
Eventually, Tom spoke at a Mass for his whole school. T.J.'s seventh-grade class and the third-graders were among the first to bring in money for the project.
"It's not unusual for our students to come up with service projects," said Judy Pappas, St. James' principal. "But something like this, with far-reaching effects like this in that arena of prison minister all on his own … ."
The first group of Bibles went to Kolbe House, which is the Chicago Archdiocese's ministry for incarcerated people in Cook and Lake counties.
"The Gospel mandates us to remember the incarcerated, and Tom takes that to heart," said the Rev. Arturo Perez-Rodriguez, director of Kolbe House. "We need to let them know they are not forgotten and are part of the larger church community. Tom is making that happen."
Then a group at Willow Creek Community Church asked for Spanish Bibles for the Kane County jail. And a woman at St. James talked about taking Bibles to female prisoners.
Tom is a thespian with Spotlight Youth Theatre, and the local chapter of that group selected Bibles Behind Bars as its charity when it produced "Bye Bye Birdie" this spring.
Tom thinks he is giving prisoners a chance to change.
"They didn't have a chance to have a relationship with Christ before being in prison. God placed this on my heart."
But Father Perez-Rodriguez thinks it will be a while before Tom can realize his wish of going to jails and preaching to prisoners.
"You have to be an adult and have clearance," he said.