While serving a 20 year prison sentence, Jay Gardner learned how to make jewelry.
But Gardner’s necklaces and bracelets don’t feature gems or gold or any precious gem or metal. They're made entirely of paper and string.
In the early 1990s, Gardner said he was an ordained minister, but always had a problem with drugs and alcohol. When his wife left him, he said, he fell further into his vices, which led to a series of robberies of hotels and restaurants in 1996.
Gardner said he was charged with robbery and armed robbery, though he claims he never had a gun, but because he was thought to have one, he still obtained the latter charge.
Five years into his sentence, he discovered paper jewelry. Gardner received paper from the inmates who worked in the educational department. He stretched garbage bags until they resembled twine for string and skimmed wax off the cleaning supplies.
He rolled the paper into the desired shape and used the wax to bind it. After a few times, he'd string his paper jewelry together with his impromptu string.
His first encounter with the paper jewelry was on another inmate, Gardner said.
“There’s no colors in prison. There’s no gifts in prison, really, but I saw a man wearing a necklace, and I was like, ‘How did you get beads?’ He said ‘It’s paper.’ I bought it from him. I had me a gift — something colorful,” Gardner said.
Gardner sent some of his paper jewelry to friends, family members and church organizations while he was incarcerated.
When he was released from the Phillips State Prison in Buford, Georgia, Gardner decided to continue his craft to spread the "hope, peace and strength," that he found in the jewelry.
To do so, Gardner founded Torn Pages, a nonprofit, in its nascent stages, that aims to provide inmates with assistance to get on their feet when they are released from prison.
The funds to accomplish this mission come from selling the same paper jewelry Gardner first encountered in prison. Currently, the nonprofit operates out of some spare space at the Coweta FORCE office.
"It touched my life, and I knew if it touched mine, I knew it'd touch others," he said. "I knew that once I got out, I'd make a difference in my own little cell, in my world. I'm free and trying to make a difference in a greater way."
Amy Oliver, community outreach and creative director for Torn Pages, said Gardner will often give out the jewelry for free to people.
However, when he does this, Gardner has one condition: the recipient cannot keep the jewelry for themselves — they must give it to someone who is hurting and in need of some support.
"There's so much negativity in the world, especially now with all the broken people, and we have to change that," Oliver said. "It teaches people to give. When you give and you serve, you feel blessings and it's fulfilling."
Part of Torn Pages' outreach, according to Gardner, is assisting three villages in Uganda. Gardner said Torn Pages is supporting 169 Ugandan women and children who help make the paper bracelets and necklaces for the nonprofit.
Though Torn Pages is still in its infancy, Gardner said he believes his paper jewelry will become a sensation.
"One day it's going to be pretty popular around the world," he said. "Most people in the world haven't experienced bracelets or necklaces made out of paper."