Who We Are
Learn about our important work
Learn about our important work
Companions Journeying Together, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, provides a forum to personally impact the emotional, spiritual, and social lives of the incarcerated and their families. Our vision is for a society that lives by the principles of restorative justice.
We seek out opportunities to reach incarcerated women and men through a variety of programs designed to build healthy relationships and foster positive communication. Those programs include the Aunt Mary’s Storybook Project and pen pal groups. Additional services we organize include special holiday communication projects, community education/training, and advocacy. We have a history of working successfully with officials from the Illinois Department of Corrections, as well as with individuals, churches, and civic/community organizations committed to serving imprisoned people and their families.
Jana Minor (Co-Chairperson & Founder): In 1976, Jana Minor began corresponding with one imprisoned man and heard a call to serve imprisoned people. She completed a bachelor’s degree which she had started twenty years earlier. Upon graduation she went to work for a prison ministry in Peoria which among other things operated a half- way house for men recently released from prison. In 1986, with the help of her sisters, she started Companions, Journeying Together, Inc., using funds left by their Aunt Mary. She helped to launch our very important project, Aunt Mary’s Storybook Project, which today serves parents and their children in several county jails and state prisons. More recently, she launched a pen pal group project. Members of these groups each have their own pen pal and meet regularly to share their experiences and gain support from each other. Jana is no longer the Executive Director of Companions, using her time instead to coordinate the pen pal group, the Christmas card and Mother’s Day projects. She continues her extensive correspondence with incarcerated people.
Marcy Darin (Co-Chairperson): Marcy began her involvement with Companions as a volunteer with Aunt Mary’s Storybook, helping women in the Cook County Jail select a book for their child and record the story. It was a humbling experience – as a mom, Marcy had read many of the same books to her own children. With this one small act, we could help parents reconnect with their son or daughter in a meaningful way – through books. In professional life, Marcy has worked with nonprofits as a fundraiser and grant writer, most recently for AMITA Health. Marcy feels that it is a great joy to transfer these same skills to Companions to further the organization’s mission.
Mike Plamondon (Treasurer): Mike is a long-time Aunt Mary’s Storybook volunteer at Kane and DeKalb County Jails. He also serves as a volunteer with CASA of Kane County, where he serves as a judge-appointed Guardian ad Litem, representing the best interests of abused and neglected children. He is also a volunteer with Gentiva Hospice and is treasurer of the Fox Valley Harley Owners Group. He lives in St. Charles and is retired after a long career in the tech industry.
Paula Blew-Sims: After growing up in Missouri and Illinois, Paula married and expected to live a normal life, but her world “was upended by episodes of postpartum depression/psychosis and a prison sentence.” Freed after being incarcerated for 32 years, Paula has a unique knowledge of the courts and prison system and those affected by it. She hopes to be able to help others who are experiencing what she endured. She is an active advocate for incarcerated domestic violence survivors and for other issues affecting women.
Jake Bucher, PhD: Jake is the Founding Dean of the College of Applied Social Sciences at Dominican University. After serving in the military, Jake leveraged several positions in higher education to pursue research and teaching in the areas of crime and criminal justice – namely victimization, causes of crime, and incarceration. To the latter, Jake has taught in correctional facilities – bringing education, pro-social interactions, and college credits to detained men and women for over 15 years.
Sr. Carolyn Croft, OP: Sr. Carolyn has served as a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa for over 57 years. For 40 years, she worked with children with developmental disabilities to children that are gifted. During those years, Sr. Carolyn taught graduate students at Dominican University. During her retirement years, she taught English to Vietnamese Sisters. Sr. Carolyn joined Companions Journeying Together as she has always observed the importance of parents in the life of their children. Aunt Mary Storybook project plays a significant role in the bonding of parent and child by reading books on tape.
Ashley Downing-Velasquez: Ashley is the Office Administrator in the First District, Chicago office, of the State Appellate Defender. She has a passion for criminal justice reform and ensuring incarcerated individuals are not forgotten behind bars. Ashley started volunteering with Aunt Mary’s Storybook Project in April 2017 and was Volunteer of the Year in 2019. She has seen how incarceration affects families and believes our Storybook program connects children with their loved ones in a very special way, while also promoting literacy. Through her career and volunteering experiences, she has shown a great dedication to individuals who are often misrepresented.
Dennis Kitchen: Dennis served as Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resource Officer for The AZEK Company. He lives in Lisle.
Michelle Rammien: Michele works in the accounting department of County Prestress LLC and is a long-time volunteer for Aunt Mary’s Storybook. She lives in Lisle.
Three sisters, Jana Minor, Mary Rammien, and Margaret Rudnik, stepped up to a unique challenge using funds inherited from their aunt, Mary E. Best. In 1986, Companions Journeying Together (CJT) began with the goal of reaching incarcerated people in Illinois and helping them build and maintain healthy relationships with their loved ones.
As the organization grew, programs grew to address the ever growing needs of the community including classes on topics such as forgiveness, anger management, and improving relationships. After a successful class in 1993, Jana saw first hand the difficulties of parenting while incarcerated. She launched Aunt Mary’s Storybook in memory of her aunt. Family programs grew as CJT developed specific initiatives around family reunification.
We continue to follow our founding principles, but grow as needs and wants by our community and partners are highlighted.
Our partners like our supporters help us achieve our goals. We rely on institutions to offer us access to the people we serve. You can help by connecting us with other institutions who want to partner with us! Click here.
Correctional institutions that have generously stepped up to partner with us:
Cook County Jail – Chicago, Illinois
DeKalb County Jail – Sycamore, Illinois
Kane County Jail – St. Charles, Illinois
Kendall County Jail – Yorkville, Illinois
Randolph County Jail – Chester, Illinois
Will County Jail – Joliet, Illinois
Centralia Correctional Center – Centralia, Illinois
Hill Correctional Center – Galesburg, Illinois
Illinois River Correctional Center – Canton, Illinois
Joliet Treatment Center – Joliet, Illinois
Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center – Kewanee, Illinois
Menard Correctional Center – Chester, Illinois
Menard Correctional Center Medium Security Unit – Chester, Illinois
Sheridan Correctional Center – Sheridan, Illinois
Vandalia Correctional Center – Vandalia, Illinois
Western Illinois Correctional Center – Mt. Sterling, Illinois
Federal Prison Camp (FPC) Pekin – Pekin, Illinois