Kalena, 10, still talks about her mom a lot. She worries about her. Misses her.
But on Saturday, Kalena was distracted from her worries by Santa Claus, who walked in and took a seat a few feet away from her with a deep “Ho-ho-ho.”
She sat up straight so that she could see a nearby shelf lined with presents. Behind her, dozens of small bicycles in bright colors were parked along the wall.
In May of last year, Kalena watched as police handcuffed her mother, Lekenda Dawson, and took her away on a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
For a while afterward, Kalena didn’t behave at school. She talked back to her teachers and wouldn’t listen to her grandmother. Her older sister, Kevinisha, 21, took charge — as she’s done since her sisters were small — and visited the school to explain the situation.
Research shows that children often suffer from acute depression and anxiety when their parents go to jail.
In New Orleans, said to be the world’s leader in per-capita incarceration, Kalena’s grandmother, Alice Dawson, has firsthand experience of what happens. “They do act out,” said Dawson, 56, who is now raising Kalena along with two of Kalena’s older sisters, Kevinisha and Kendalyn, whom she has raised from infancy. A fourth sister is being raised by a paternal grandmother in Texas.
Saturday’s annual “Joy to the World” holiday program was intended to ease some of the anxiety for Kalena and 180 other local children of mothers in prison.
“Your mothers love you. Your grandmothers love you. They are so excited that someone is going to give you a present on their behalf,” said Deborah Chapman, president of the local nonprofit group Mountain Climbers, who started the program as part of her work with the families of about 200 women who have been locked up in Orleans Parish Prison in recent years.
While it used to be a relative rarity for women to be imprisoned, the proportion of women in state prisons increased by more than six times between 1980 and 2010. Two-thirds of them had lived with their children before they were incarcerated.
The Louisiana state prison system has 2,123 women prisoners. About 11 percent of them come from Orleans Parish, 12 percent from Jefferson Parish and 10 percent from St. Tammany Parish.
Tears flowed often during Saturday’s two-hour program, which clearly tapped into a deep need for the families involved. Many said they often struggle emotionally and financially at this time of year.
Last year, Santa — who, when he is not at the North Pole, works in City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell’s office under the name of Julius Feltus — started crying after the program. “I got (emotionally) full, seeing it all come together,” he said.
As Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman gave a few remarks, LaKendra Luque, 23, yelled out, “Please take care of my mama.” Luque later explained to the crowd that she already has a toddler daughter, Akeea, 3, whose father is in jail. But now she is also raising her younger brother, David, 11, because their mother, Kindalyn Luque, is also in Gusman’s custody.
“I just want my mama. I miss her so much,” LaKendra Luque said through tears.
At various times over the years, Alice Dawson has taken in 10 different grandchildren as their parents moved in and out of jail in a way that she finds hard to understand. Money is tight, so Dawson each year takes a few of her three granddaughters’ toys off the shelves of their rooms and wraps them up, just so she has something to put under the tree.
On Christmas Day, opening the gifts has become a family joke. “We fake like we’re surprised,” said Kendalyn, a tall 13-year-old, who can point out the package under the tree that contains the Indian doll she’s had for years.
For years, the “Joy to the World” program has provided some gifts to the Dawson family. But starting last year, the gifts got a little larger after Cantrell connected Chapman with Christian Cancienne, the owner of Orleans Shoring, who requested wish lists for every child and sent his staff shopping.
Earlier this month, Orleans Shoring General Manager Kim Reeves bought gifts for each of the 181 children, totaling $21,000.
Although the gifts can’t be opened until Christmas, the Dawson girls have an idea what they might have received. Kalena said she’d asked for a Wii game. Kendalyn — who worked with Mountain Climbers during a summer leadership program that helped her overcome her shyness — said she’d asked Chapman for clothes because she’s getting too tall for most of her outfits.
The girls’ mother was sent to the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St. Gabriel to serve a 10-year sentence. These days, there’s not much contact between her and her daughters.
Collect phone calls are out of the question on the grandmother’s budget. Occasionally, their mom is able to place a two-minute free call from prison, but it’s barely enough to say, “Hello” and “I love you.” Sometimes their mother sends letters, but when the children write back, it can take awhile for their grandmother to afford envelopes and stamps on top of the bus passes and school uniforms they need.
Alice Dawson took in Kevinisha more than 20 years ago, when she was 6 months old. Thirteen years ago, Dawson received a call from Orleans Parish Prison officials notifying her that her daughter — an inmate at the time — had gone into labor.
Dawson went to the hospital, picked up Kendalyn and brought her home. “It’s the only home she’s known,” Dawson said.