2019 Giving Back Issue: Spreading Holiday Cheer, One Letter at a Time

For three years, public defender Alisha Backus has made sure every person in the Flathead County jail gets a card on Christmas

By Justin Franz
Public defender Alisha Backus as seen outside her office in Kalispell on Dec. 10, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

It all started off with a small, simple gesture.

Three years ago, as Christmas approached, public defender Alisha Backus decided she would send a card to each of her clients behind bars at the Flathead County jail. Backus only had a half-dozen clients in the jail at the time and she figured the small gesture would only take a few minutes of her day but it would mean a lot to people who wouldn’t see their loved ones over the holidays.

Then Backus started thinking: What about all the other people in the jail? What would they think if their cellmate got a card from their attorney and they didn’t? Not wanting anyone to feel left out, Backus decided to send a card to every person in the Flathead County jail, all 100 or so inmates.

Three years later that small gesture has turned into a tradition of sorts in Backus’ office and, with the help of a few other people in the public defenders office, she now sends nearly 300 cards to inmates in the Flathead, Lake and Lincoln county jails.

“I just thought it was sad that there were people stuck in jail on Christmas who wouldn’t be able to see their family,” she said. “And I thought that getting a card was something that might at least put a smile on their faces.”

Backus grew up in the Midwest and went to law school at Barry University in Orlando, Florida. She graduated in 2014 and got a job as a public defender in Kalispell the following year.

The attorney said she has always loved the holidays. Years ago, she and her sisters would write out cards for people in local assisted living facilities.

While many people complain about holiday supplies arriving in stores earlier and earlier every year, Backus is not among them. That’s primarily because she knows she and her helpers need plenty of time filling out the nearly 300 cards that go to the three jails, a process that can take weeks. Backus notes the holiday cards usually come out right around Thanksgiving.

Backus screens the cards to make sure they don’t include messages about being “home for the holidays” or similar messages before getting down to work, usually while watching television at night or on the weekend. Backus likes to put an inspirational quote in each card in an effort to lift the inmates’ spirits or spark a discussion with others.

“Hopefully the quotes give them something to think about or talk about,” she said.

On Christmas Eve, Backus gets the jail roster and she and other staffers at the public defenders office begin addressing cards to each inmate. Backus said she thinks it’s important to have the cards personalized (although they usually leave a few blank in case someone is arrested on Christmas Eve). Then the cards are hand delivered to the jail staff for delivery on Christmas morning.

Over the last three years, Backus said she has heard from jail staff and her own clients that the cards are appreciated. She also said the jail staff has noticed a more positive vibe in the jail after the cards are delivered.

Backus also organizes an effort to bring gifts and host a pizza party for kids at a local youth home, Youth Opportunity Resources. Last week, in between her work, Backus took a few minutes to show off the piles of gifts she and her colleagues had gathered, with everything from penguin sunglasses to Pokémon cards.

Backus said she would love to see other public defender offices pick up the tradition started here in Kalispell — or just see people send more cards to those who might be a little lonely during the holidays. This year, she convinced her mom to start sending cards to families of deployed military members.

“More people should send Christmas cards,” she said. “Hallmark probably loves me.”

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