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Builder finds calling as chaplain at Westmoreland jail

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Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Westmoreland County Prison chaplain Jim Badamo (front) and his wife, Kathleen, photographed in front of the Westmoreland County Prison on Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014.

To most people, perhaps, those who are serving time at Westmoreland County jail are inmates. To Chaplain Jim Badamo, they are his parishioners.

“I’ve probably seen more lives changed in the prison in a week than you would in a normal church in a year,” Badamo said.

Badamo used to work as a part-time pastor and full-time homebuilder before another pastor told him of the need at the jail. He first visited in 1997, and he knew he had arrived where he belonged.

“God took me out of building homes and put me into building lives,” he said.

The prison did not have a full-time chaplain then, instead depending on volunteers to care for the inmates’ religious needs. Badamo and the jail staff worked to develop the position from the ground up. He became an assistant chaplain in 2002 and was officially named the jail chaplain in 2005.

“I had lots of people tell me it wasn’t going to happen, but here we are,” he said.

The job was not without its sacrifices. Although Badamo would often work long hours, his position at the jail was not paid until recently. His wife, Kathleen, had to make money to support them. They had to downsize, moving into a smaller home, formerly a crack house, in Elizabeth.

“It needed a lot of work, but the price was right,” Badamo said.

He is now paid on a part-time basis, but he still puts in long hours to make sure his parishioners are cared for.

“He puts in a tremendous amount of time here at the prison,” Warden John Walton said. “We’re very blessed to have him.”

Badamo uses donations to help care for things that aren’t covered in the jail budget, such as faith-based, 12-step programs for recovering addicts. He is now preparing for the eighth annual “Wrapped in Love” program, which allows inmates to give gifts to their children. Last year, more than 150 children received gifts through the program.

Though he is a staunch Christian, Badamo caters to inmates of all religions. The job of a chaplain, he said, is to put the people first and faith groups second.

“Even if you don’t come to Christ, we can become a friend, I can love my neighbor as myself,” he said. He provides both Bibles and Qurans to those who want them, and he helps the county with the often-confusing task of keeping track of its prisoners’ religious affiliations. This way the jail can make sure to accommodate its inmates who wish to participate in religious ceremonies or holidays.

“You’ve got to keep up with all that stuff, and that’s what he does,” Walton said.

Badamo’s efforts may have helped keep the jail out of hot water over the years, Walton said.

“Religious lawsuits are a big problem, and I’ve been here 12 years, and I have not had any,” he said.

Badamo also served as vice president of the Pennsylvania Prison Chaplains Association.

The hardest part of his job, he said, is seeing so many of his parishioners and their families seemingly forgotten by others.

“Seeing that society has given up on these people. People can look at a TV, and see a foreign country, and these starving children, but they have that in their own neighborhoods,” he said.

His wife often helps with his work, joining him at jail services and helping female prisoners.

His biggest goal is mending fences among family members. He wants to see more imprisoned men reunite with their children when they are released.

He runs his own charity, Carpenter’s Builders Inc., devoted to raising donations to support programs such as “Wrapped In Love.”

His dream is to one day open a Christianity-focused halfway house where fathers, mothers and children can live together and rebuild their families.

“We’re trying to fight a spiritual battle using secular methods. And that’s not going to work,” he said.

“Our goal is to put a chaplaincy in to make these families whole again. And the only person who can do that is Jesus Christ.”

Jacob Tierney is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6646 or [email protected].

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