Leah Howard stood on a stage in the middle of a prison playground and told the hundreds of women sitting in the rain and watching her that it was their time – their time to learn how to be a better mom, their time. time to focus on their children like never before, their time to heal.
“There is hope in parenthood behind bars,” Howard told women incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. “The best thing you can do right now is pull yourself together because what your kids need is a whole mom. “
Spread out in front of her, the women sitting on plastic chairs, at picnic tables, and some even standing along the walls of neighboring buildings, used their sleeves as Kleenex and wiped their eyes with the collars of their shirts because that tears just didn’t want to. t stop flowing. Tears of sadness for the children they miss. Tears of joy for the second chance they were given to be a good parent.
The Saturday morning rally held in the prison’s playground – under gloomy skies and intermittent rain – was “Angel Tree Parent Day” and was hosted by the Angel Tree Ministry of the National Prison Fellowship in coordination with Rock City Church in Columbus, Ohio. This was the first in-person event with strangers at the prison since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
The women obviously appreciated the visitors who brought with them a Christian message of hope and an invigorating panel of speakers. Five members of the 216 Stix, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ drumline, kicked off the morning’s event with a performance that had the whole court cheering and applauding.
But then things got serious when speakers took turns telling the women how essential it is to stay in touch with their children while they are incarcerated and how important it is to help their children connect to the world. a church outside that can love and support them. .
Tell your kids that you love themHoward, of Living Word Church in Vandalia, Ohio, introduced himself to the women as a former inmate A1735. Ten years ago this month, she was in their place at the reformatory and was starting a four-year sentence for shooting her husband.
She cried as she spoke of her youngest daughter, who was only 7 when Howard went to jail, and how her son nearly died in a truck crash while incarcerated.
She told the women that the Bible verse “you reap what you sow” may never be more true for them than it is now.
“When you sow and love people here, you are asking God and others to take care of your children there,” Howard said. “They need you to write them down and tell them you love them because all they hear is negativity. And sometimes the only thing we can do for our children is pray.
The event was part of an expansion of Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Ministry, which is currently providing a hand-delivered Christmas gift and gospel message to children of incarcerated parents who register, said Richard Swiger, director of field operations for the department in Ohio.
“Women know Angel Tree can give their child a gift,” Swiger said, “but what we want them to know is that the relationship with ministry can be much more than that. help bridge the gap between parent and child when they are separated.
Dave Stewart, youth pastor for Rock City Church, told the women the church will always be there to support their children, but the pastors and volunteers for Saturday’s event were there with one message, really.
“You matter. You matter,” he told them. “You matter to God, and you matter to us.”
Those three simple sentences sparked another wave of fresh tears.
“Hope is the first job”And even though by then the drizzle had turned into a pouring rain, none of the women returned to their bunks, but stayed in their seats and wrapped themselves in clear plastic trash bags that the prison staff had distributed in a hurry. They were in this message, and it seemed like no one wanted to leave.
Among those present to encourage them was Annette M. Chambers-Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
“This kind of program excites me because hope is Job One,” she told them. “We believe in parenthood while incarcerated. You didn’t stop being a parent when you came here. Love. This is what children need. They just need love, and you got it.
Angel Tree volunteers handed out brochures with tips on how to bond with children – things like how to ask the right questions about their interests, how to become a long-distance “trainer” for their sports, how to have a better relationship with the babysitter.
Vanessa Franklin, national director of Prison Fellowship operations and a former incarcerated woman herself, reminded the woman that their situation without their children is temporary and that those seeking to support their children on the outside are a valuable resource.
“Sisters, no one wants to take your place and no one can,” Franklin told them. “We’re in this season for a while. This moment will pass … and our children will be stronger for it. “