A reflection from our newest Regional Coordinator: Julia Harmon Chavez
As a mother of a ten year old I have often thought about what it would have been like if I had not had the good fortune to have raised my son and been there every night to tuck him in, read him a story and say prayers with him. Like me, many of you may have done this thousands of times with your children but maybe never stopped to think that it could have been any different.
Well I’m here to tell you that that is TRUE for thousands of our families right here in California who have a parent who is incarcerated. A couple of weeks ago I was invited to attend one of the Get on the Bus Programs from Orange County to go to the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, Ca. This correctional facility houses 6500 men and well over half of them are fathers who have children all over the state of Ca.
It is a full day. Depending on where you get picked up by a coach bus along the way you could be getting up as early at 3 a.m. On the bus I attended, we had 55 mothers, grandmothers, guardians, volunteers, and children anxiously waiting for the 4-5 hour trip to be over so they could greet their loved one inside for Father’s Day. For some it had been years since they had seen their husband, son or father…for some of the children it was the first time EVER meeting their father. Shortly after getting on the bus, I was introduced to a tall, slender, good-looking, polite and intelligent young man of 16 who I would escort in when we got off the bus at the CMC.
As we waited to get his paperwork processed and sat in the visiting room anticipating his father’s arrival, I found out that this young man had not seen his father since he was 4 years old. He said he didn’t remember him. I wondered what that was like for him and what he must be feeling in that moment as he waited for a man to walk in who he didn’t know but who gave him life.
As I soon learned throughout the day, this young man’s story was not much different than many of the others who were there yet there was an easiness and flow to the connections that emerged and a lightness and celebratory air to the day’s activities. There were arts and crafts, king paper crowns made by the children for their father’s to wear (the same men that are often depicted by the media as brutal monsters), board games, pizza, drinks, and snacks to be eaten and pictures to be taken.
I saw children hanging on their fathers as they walked around the visiting room…sometimes 4 at a time! Small infants being held and toddlers being looked after. It wasn’t a day in prison but a day of families being re-united and children being given a dream come true.
As the day started to wind down around 3 p.m. and everyone got ready for the long journey home, we were told that we would make another stop before heading back to the L.A. area. One of the nearby churches, who was involved in raising the money and getting the volunteers opened up its doors to provide fellowship, counseling and closure to the day’s events. It was a beautiful end to an emotional day of mixed feelings and hard goodbyes.
So I’m here today not just to tell you about an experience that warmed my heart which hopes to tug at your heart strings but to let you know that this vision, which still keeps growing bigger…because there are more prisons and there are more families….needs your help. The more of us out here who care about those children and families effected by being away from a loved one in prison the more we can make a difference through our pocketbooks, our hands-on-help, our time and our influence. For whatever the reasons why children are separated from their parents in prison this should not be a reason to not do our part to help make this dream more of a reality for more children and families. And I guarantee you, you join us this year and you won’t be able to stay away in years to come. It is an intimate experience that you get the privilege to be a part of and I know for myself that that is a priceless gift that I always want to have the good fortune to participate in.
And as for my young man who I escorted in, he indeed recognized his father as he walked out to greet us in the courtyard. Perhaps it was familial recognition or pictures that had been passed between them over the years or maybe…it was something more….maybe it was love.
Julia Harmon Chavez
Thanks Julia- well said!!