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Forgiven, not forgotten

"Forgiven, not forgotten" Continued...

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

Sheldon Sutton talks about his nervousness as he sticks a small, foam diamond and pink flower to the corners of a frame for his 8-year-old daughter. Sutton is serving a sentence of life without parole, and he hasn't seen his daughter in over a year: "I really don't know what to say to her." Mostly, he wants one thing: "I want her to leave knowing I love her."

In a box in the corner, the men stack the completed frames, bearing hand-written messages: "I wish I could be back in your life." "I miss you very much." "I look forward to our future together." "I think about you everyday." "Daddy loves you."

Barnes tells the men they'll make a small lamp with their child tomorrow. She asks, "How many of you have something you made with your daddy?" No one raises a hand. She follows up: "How many of you had a daddy who was in jail?" More than half raise their hands.

Barnes knows that these inmates' children face a similar danger: Children of prisoners are seven times as likely to end up in prison themselves. It's a sobering statistic for these fathers, and Barnes asks: "Do you want to break that cycle?" Heads nod hard around the room.

Haseem Everett especially wants to break the cycle. His daughter is 9 years old. He hasn't seen her in 6 ½ years. He's eager to encourage her to live a clean life: "I was running the streets at 13, and I refuse to let her get into that situation." He's also eager to begin a relationship with her. "If we can just start a foundation," he says. He confesses his biggest fear: "Her not coming."

That's a fear Barnes and her assistant, Strickland, share. After prison officials identify men for the camps, Barnes and Strickland send letters to each child's caregiver-usually a mother, grandmother, aunt, or other family member. They follow up with phone calls, often pleading with sometimes-wary family members to bring the children. By Friday afternoon, they're still calling families to confirm, and encouraging the inmates to place calls that evening too. Nothing is certain, they gently warn.

But the risk is worth it to these men, and they listen intently as Jim Williams of Blue Ridge Ministries presents a fathering seminar with practical instruction: Contact your children as often as possible. Encourage them to respect their caregivers. Maintain a relationship with Christ that informs your relationship with your kids.

By late afternoon, the men eat the last of their snacks-they can't take food back to their cells-and they file out for a long night of waiting.

Early Saturday morning, children and caregivers begin arriving at a nearby church. The ministry pairs a volunteer mentor with each family, and mentors will remain with their assigned child throughout the day. Caregivers stay at the church for a day-long program designed to encourage and support them.

Meanwhile, in the prison's gym, the dads blow up balloons and pace nervously. By 9:20 a.m. the children have arrived, and the prison goes on lockdown as they're escorted through the cold, gray corridors toward the gym. Dads crane their necks as volunteers introduce each child. Some run to their fathers. Others are more timid. Some shed tears.

Sutton is relieved to see his 8-year-old daughter approach with white beads decorating her pretty, braided hair. She offers a wide smile and big hug. In a separate corner, Everett isn't smiling: His daughter did not come, although she lives less than 30 miles away. "I'm just disappointed," he says, and so are four other men. But Everett says he's still glad he came, and he hopes to apply what he's learned about fatherhood as he's able.

For the others, a series of games, a magic show, and other fun activities allow dads to relax with their children, and begin to connect. For the first time in years, some hold their children on their laps. At a catered lunch of fried chicken in the visitation room, the conversations grow loud as fathers, children, and mentors chat over lunch. Since dads miss their children's birthdays, the ministry provides a birthday cake and everyone sings.

After lunch, the families make small lampshades by threading clear beads onto gold safety pins and closing them with wire. Each child will take home a small electric lamp that fits the shade. One child, Destiny, expresses her gratitude for time with her father: "I've never had a day like this in my life, and I may never have one again."

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