The largest family reunion of its kind in the nation was held Saturday when nearly 1,000 children got to spend the day with their 350-plus incarcerated fathers, grandfathers and uncles at the 10th annual Returning Hearts celebration held at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
The temporarily reunited families, all wearing colorful T-shirts emblazoned with a Bible verse on the back, strolled rodeo grounds at Angola that had been transformed into a family-friendly carnival.
Children played on inflatable climbs and slides, rode ponies, soaked each other with water balloons, munched on cotton candy and popcorn, and lunched on hot dogs and hamburgers.
The event, sponsored by Awana Clubs, an interdenominational Christian youth organization, attracted 670 volunteers from states across the country.
As fathers focused on mending or strengthening relationships with their children, the volunteers provided frosty water bottles but otherwise stayed close but out of the way.
“This is the best day ever!” declared Jacob Cannon, 13, as he and his stepdad, inmate Bobby Wallace, played tag football with Rashadd Foley, 11, and his inmate father, George Gillam.
“I’m looking forward to spending time with him — he’s a good athlete and he reads the Bible,” Wallace proudly said of Cannon.
Foley was focused on the score. His side was behind and he wasn’t happy about it. “He (Gillam) can’t catch my passes and I can’t catch his,” the boy grumbled.
The Returning Hearts program is focused on children and trying to break the generational cycle of crime and violence that plagues the incarcerated.
“This is for the kids — it’s not for the inmates,” Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot said. “We do this so one day we’ll have fewer victims.”
Many children of inmates follow their fathers into prison, Fontenot said, and an event like Returning Hearts is a way to build positive relationships that hopefully will continue throughout the year through letter-writing and visitations.
Fontenot reported that since the program was established, the inmate fathers are better behaved, and Awana officials have reported that many of the children have improved in their school attendance and performance.
Mike Broyles, executive director of the Awana program that links inmates with their children, said it is so successful that now a dozen prisons in other states and local jails are incorporating it — including several women’s facilities.
But even more importantly, he stressed, it is spiritually changing the hearts of the children and their fathers.
Saturday’s program began with an announcer calling each inmate by name out of the crowded grandstands to unite with his anxious children awaiting below. The reunions were emotional and physical with hugs, kisses and occasionally with the inmate getting bowled over by joyous, charging children.
“It’s awesome,” Arielle Delco, 12, of Houma, said after seeing her dad, Arien Delco, for the first time in a long time. “Awesome,” added her little brother Cleveland Delco, 9. The youngest son, 5-year-old Kaylan, just smiled.
“It’s wonderful,” said inmate father Delco as he hugged them close. “I’m so glad to see them, you know.”
Dave Bates, a visiting deputy sheriff from Los Angeles County, said they copied it five years ago — on a much smaller scale — to some success.
Most of the Angola inmates are serving life, Bates said, while the prisoners housed in the Los Angeles County prisons are eventually released, making the restoration of family relationships even more important.
“Even if they’ve blown it for many years, this helps them turn things around,” Bates said. “The return on investment is great. We can put them back in the house with success.”