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Ministry reunites children with imprisoned mothers

6/11/2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: Photographs are available with this report.

By Frances S. Smith*

CLAREMONT, Calif. (UMNS) - Robert had not seen his mother in three years, so the 15-year-old boy was eager at the prospect of visiting her.

"I couldn't sleep last night I was so excited," he said, as he and 23 other children set off by bus to visit their mothers.

Their destination was a women's prison in central California.

The kids and their guardians were making the trip through an annual church-sponsored program called "Get on the Bus." Without the program, Robert would have had no way of seeing his mother, who is serving an 11-year sentence.

"We don't have a car, so we can't go to visit her," he said.

Playing a key role in the bus project was Just Do It, one of the newer United Methodist Women circles at Claremont United Methodist Church. Its members helped the children's guardians wade through the paperwork required to ride the bus and gain admission to the two prisons in the remote community of Chowchilla, north of Fresno. Crossroads, a re-entry home for women parolees in Claremont, supplied the children's names.

Just Do It members provided breakfast and snacks for the travelers to take on their five-hour journey. Two Just Do It members accompanied the group. The Claremont Church parking lot provided the assembly point early on the morning of May 10.

Carolyn Francis, a Just Do It sparkplug, sketched a bit of background. "We wanted to do something about women in prison, so we began working with Crossroads. Its executive director, Sister Terry Dodge, came and spoke to our group. We offered to donate used clothing, but Sister Terry said, 'We need more personal involvement. We need tutors in English and math to help our women get their GEDs so they can get jobs.' Three of our members, experienced teachers, now do tutoring on a regular basis.

"Sister Terry brought a video of an earlier Get on the Bus program," Francis continued. "And we heard from Caroline Contreras, who had been incarcerated for eight years at Chowchilla but is now out on parole and living at Crossroads. She told us that two years ago, while she was still behind bars, her daughter, Cynthia, aged 17, was brought for a visit. She wanted to join the Navy but didn't want to abandon her mother."

"I was feeling useless," Contreras said, "but when she ran into my arms, I realized that even when she's 40, she will still need me. That gave me an incentive to think about what I wanted to do with my life. So I began studying to acquire vocational skills in optometry and air conditioning."

When Contreras came out of prison, after serving a sentence on drug-related charges, she joined Crossroads' sober living program. She now has a job with an air-conditioning firm and gives 10 percent of every paycheck to Get on the Bus. "That three-hour visit profoundly changed my life," she said.

Just Do It member Jane Burtis was among those on the trip, accompanying boys 5 and 9 years old. The boys' visit had an impact on their mother.

"It was probably the most memorable Mother's Day experience I ever had," Burtis said. "It gave me a thrill to know we'd taken one small step to help one mother adjust to the world outside and to resolve to stay out of prison."

The Claremont bus was one of nine that took 136 children from 67 families up and down California to Chowchilla. Sister Suzanne Steffens, director of Detention Ministry for Los Angeles' Catholic Archdiocese, was in overall charge of the project. There are more than 7,300 mothers among the nearly 9,500 women incarcerated in California. Most are serving time in Chowchilla at the Central California Women's Facility and the Valley State Prison, the world's largest women's prison complex.

Carolyn Francis also sparked another project that provides pen pals for women inmates on death row. Through the Death Row Support Project, she got the names of 12 women in Chowchilla prisons who wanted someone to write to them. Francis lined up United Methodist women and others willing to become pen pals.

Other members of the group write to older women imprisoned in Corona who feel they have been forgotten. Said Francis: "This is something any church woman can do."

*Smith, a retired United Methodist News Service staffer, is a free-lance writer living in Claremont, Calif.

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