By Malie Hudson
The old proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child,” is especially true for children whose parents are incarcerated.
Get on the Bus (GOTB), a program that brings children and their families to visit their mothers and fathers in prison, has become an important part of that “village.”
“Some of the families are in very bad straits because the process has depleted their funds,” said Anna Hamilton, Associate Director for the Diocesan Office of Restorative Justice, who oversees GOTB at the diocesan level.
Last year, parishes from around the Diocese helped 200 children and families in the GOTB program. Hamilton says participation in the program keeps growing every year.
This year, 13 parishes in the Diocese raised funds to sponsor 12 buses. The estimated cost to rent one bus is $5,000.
Parishioners and community groups networked to also contribute food, snacks and supplies to fill travel bags and “stay connected” bags for the children.
The travel bags are usually filled with snacks, art supplies and games to keep the children busy during the long bus ride. Depending on donations, the bags could also include a disposable camera so that families can take photos and savor memories from the day. The “stay connected bags” are personalized and given to each child on the return ride home. It includes a surprise letter from their parent, teddy bear, stationary and postage to encourage children to write to their parent. Volunteer coordinators and counselors are available on every bus to help children and families during the emotional ride home.
The 24-hour trips are made annually between March and June. Participants typically board the bus at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday and arrive at the prison the following day. Depending on the prison, children spend an average of three to eight hours with their mother or father. Volunteers from the parish assist with face painting, crafts, photography and food during the special day, and help children and families return home Saturday night.
St. Mary’s Church in Fontana was the first parish on the schedule to make the trip on April 22 to the Federal Corrections Institution for Women in Dublin, Calif. It was also its first year with the GOTB program.
“It’s a beautiful thing to meet the families and help them fill out the applications,” said Lorena Gonzalez, GOTB volunteer coordinator at St. Mary’s Parish. “The families are so excited. There’s an older teenager in the program that asked me, ‘am I going to be able to sit with my mom?’ I said ‘yes.’ Then he asked, ‘Am I going to hug my mom?’ I said ‘yes.’ You’re going to spend six to eight hours with her in the same room. He said, ‘oh my God I have so much to tell my mom. I just graduated. I went to prom. I have a girlfriend. I have so much to tell her.’ I looked at him and I said this is why we’re doing this.”
The teenager’s prior visits with his mother over the past few years were through a glass partition window in a booth.
“I also have a two-year-old baby going to see the mom in prison,” said Gonzalez. “It would be the first time the mother has seen the baby since birth. It really is amazing to see all the kids come together. My bus ended up being mostly teens. You should see the teenagers, they’re just so happy and it makes me happy to see that. The kids are marked with the stigmatism of a mom who is incarcerated and the embarrassment and humiliation that goes with it. They have a lot to deal with. So it’s a beautiful thing to have them experience a little bit of a normal day.”
The parish has raised $3,400 for the bus rental, which included a $2,700 donation from St. Anthony’s Parish in Upland from funding left over from their own GOTB campaign last year. Gonzalez also secured donations from Nestle for candies and chocolate milk. The parish’s food pantry, Pan de Vida, contributed snacks and parishioners donated money for the bus rental and supplies for the bags. Parishioners also signed up to volunteer in different capacities. Gonzalez is planning a fundraiser in May to come up with the remaining bus expenses.
“I really encourage more people to bring it into their church because we can service more families that way,” she said.
The Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Redlands started collecting donations in March to sponsor a bus on May 19 to the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. Over a span of nine Masses, the parish raised over $5,000.
“We were amazed at the outpouring of generosity and how many people wanted to make this happen. It was really amazing,” said Sharon Callon-Schwartz, the parish’s Director of Mission Advancement.
Volunteers set up tables outside each Mass and encouraged parishioners to either sign up to volunteer, contribute supplies, or donate money. The sign up tables were decorated with toy buses that were filled with coins from younger parishioners. The University of Redlands donated backpacks; students from the parish school pitched in with stickers, and parishioners who worked as professional counselors volunteered to be available to children needing emotional support on the bus ride home.
So far, the parish had 13 children and their families apply for the GOTB program.
“The goal is to reunite families,” said Callon-Schwartz. “It’s also to provide motivation for reconciliation, motivation for rehabilitation and to ease some of the issues with abandonment.”
Malie Hudson is a freelance writer based in Riverside.