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Saturday, November 17, 2018

Ambassadors of Light (Part 3 of 3)


by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Unpacking the Day

After the conclusion of the camp I returned to my housing unit and called my wife to tell her about the day. When we spoke she told me my daughter was really excited when she left being with me and rejoined her in the parking lot. She pointed out, however, that shortly after they got into the car and began exiting the parking lot my daughter began crying.

When my wife asked her if she was alright she silently nodded in the affirmative. My wife then asked her if she had a lot of emotions that had accrued throughout the day and my daughter again nodded up and down, indicating that she did. She was clearly overwhelmed and trying to process the storm of emotions she was experiencing.

I understood what my daughter was feeling because I, too, was feeling engulfed by the day. After speaking to my wife on the phone I went to my cell and briefly spoke to my cellmate. He was excited for me and asked how the day went. I told him it went really well but kept my remarks brief. I added that I would share more 
details with him later on. Shortly thereafter he left the cell to give me some space.

Once I was completely alone in the cell I was able to reflect more on the day and how emotionally exhausting it was absent any distractions. I hadn't had another experience like it in three decades of incarceration. I knew it was all positive though and that was what I remained focused on. It was a series of special moments I would be able to share with my daughter for years to come.

Visits from family and friends are always a mix of happiness and sadness for prisoners. It is a time when prisoners drop their guard and allow themselves to experience some semblance of normalcy with people who not only genuinely love and care about them, but also miss them tremendously.

It is also a time when prisoners and their loved ones know that as each second on the clock slowly ticks away they grow increasingly closer to the moment their precious time together will be terminated until they have the good fortune of visiting again. For some people that opportunity may not arrive again for weeks. For others it could be months or even years depending on a broad range of unpredictable variables beyond their control.

Most prisoners spend their days expending exhaustive energy suppressing and masking their emotions around their peers as a way to survive and cope with their isolation and painful separation from loved ones. It also helps them battle against the debilitating feeling of loneliness that seemingly seeks to incessantly suffocate their hopes and aspirations.

It is akin to being held captive in a self-imposed mental and emotional prison. It is also an unproductive way of processing thoughts and emotions. Internalizing corrosive thoughts is antithetical to growth and can result in long-term damage to a prisoner's life and relationships.

This day was different though. It was a day filled with many firsts I had never experienced with my daughter before and there was nothing for me to juxtapose it with. As one prisoner who participated in a previous camp told me ahead of this year's event, "It will be better than the best visit you've ever had."

Over the years I have learned the importance of finding ways to process my thoughts and emotions in prosocial ways through a culmination of extensive research, experience, and guidance from therapists. Though it has taken a great deal of introspective work it has equipped me with the necessary skills to 
create and maintain healthy relationships, as well as help others.

I concluded the day knowing I made good choices for my daughter, family, and myself. I shared experiences with my daughter that will have an enduring impact on her life and shape her 
future in myriad ways. Few incarcerated fathers will be fortunate enough to experience such an amazing life-changing day behind the merciless walls of prison.
One of the books we received the previous day was titled "Jesus Calling" by Sarah Young. It is a beautifully bound book of daily devotional readings. An excerpt for October 5, the first day the "1 Day With God" camp began states, "True Joy is a by-product of living in [Jesus'] Presence. Therefore you can experience it in palaces, in prisons ... anywhere."

This passage encapsulates the sentiments shared by many fathers who participated in the camp. Several characterized it as the best day they had ever experienced in prison. A number of them felt they were not even in prison for six hours, and many said it marked a new beginning for them and their child.

One of the fathers was able to meet his 6-year-old daughter for the first time ever during the camp. Another father met his 10-year-old son for the first time, and one father told the story about only being able to see his 12-year-old son four times during the past seven years because of the camp.

Circumstances with their families prevented them from previously seeing their children. Some are financially unable to travel, some have not had good relations with the child's mother, some are not approved to 
visit the prison because of outstanding unpaid tickets, some fathers only recently learned they had a child, among a host of other issues.

Two of the children traveled a considerable distance to participate in the camp that day. One child flew from Kentucky to Detroit and then had to coordinate with other family members to make the four-hour drive from Detroit to Manistee. The other child traveled 17 hours by car from Georgia to be there.
Each of the fathers was consumed with emotion by the end of the camp and their hearts and minds were indelibly seared by the memories that were created. At the conclusion of the balloon ceremony one volunteer with tears in his eyes who observed the open displays of affection and joy between fathers and their children said, "This is exactly why we do these camps. It is worth all the hard work and preparation that goes into every single one. It changes lives forever."

The family members or caregivers who traveled to bring a child to participate in the camp were heroes that day. Without their willingness to contribute their time, energy, and financial resources the children could not have experienced the camp with their father. They put the children before themselves and demonstrated a selfless act of service and concern for the future of each child.

Several families, including mine, traveled to Manistee the previous day and stayed 
in a hotel to ensure the child they brought would arrive at the church Saturday morning at 8 am. My wife and daughter stayed in a hotel Saturday evening as well so they could visit me the following day.

The volunteers who hosted the event were incredibly organized, dedicated, and committed to making the camp a success. They were very kind and respectful people of faith who modeled Christian values in both their words and actions. Many of them have hosted several camps in the past and expressed eagerness to host many more in the future.

The day also would not have been possible without the cooperation and support of Chaplain Paul Duby who helped coordinate the event along with members of Warden Lester Parish's administration and custody staff who oversaw the security aspect of the event. The prison staff present that day were helpful and courteous.

The camp gave me an even deeper appreciation for fatherhood than I previously had. While I have been doing my best to fulfill my role as a father to my daughter despite my physical absence, the camp provided me an opportunity to interact with my daughter and for us to see each other through a lens never before possible.

Despite my physical absence I do my best to stay involved in my daughter's life daily and make my presence felt. I call my wife daily to see how they are doing and speak to my daughter nearly every time I call if she isn't doing homework or busy with other productive activities. I also write her letters and send her greeting cards.

My daughter and I work on her homework together, talk about her day at school, and I have her read me her daily affirmation when we talk on the phone. Before her soccer games I call and offer her words of encouragement. I tell her even if she doesn't win I am proud of her because I know she did her best. I also remind her that we have to fail or lose in life in order to learn or get better at things sometimes.

My wife brings my daughter to visit as often as she can. When we visit we play board games, read books, and talk as much as we can. It's always frustrating because visiting room rules do not allow prisoners to get up from their chairs once they are seated. They are only permitted to leave their chair to greet their visitors, for 
photos, and when leaving the visiting room.

These inordinate rules severely restrict interactions between prisoners and their children during visits. It is also often very demoralizing for children and something incarcerated parents must expend a great deal of energy and creativity combating to prevent. If they don't it can result in irreparable harm to their relationship and to the child.

Children are too young to understand why a parent can not hold them or play with them during prison visits when their other parent does it at home daily. It can cause some children to begin feeling rejected or a sense of abandonment by their incarcerated parent and develop resentment toward them.

I did not realize the full impact it would have on my daughter to see me do simple things like run, dribble a basketball, lay on the ground, do pull-ups, give her a piggyback ride, cheer her on during competitions we partnered in together, dance with her, give her gifts in person, or 
create a craft with her. Though I could assume how she may interpret these things for the first time I had no previous way of contrasting them with previous experiences with her to know with certainty.

At best all I had was hope and conjecture which cannot be equated or juxtaposed with experience. Once we experienced these things together I discovered how much deeper our father/daughter bond evolved. It also demonstrated firsthand how much of an impact I can have on my daughter when physically present and reinforced why it is so important for me to be a positive role model for her.

In many ways the camp allowed my daughter to see me as a fully functional father for the first time ever, not just a man saying things fathers do. I was actually humanized in her eyes. Not only was she able to hear words of inspiration she was able to observe the corresponding actions. She was able to see both symbol and substance in motion.

My daughter has taught me myriad valuable lessons about life since her birth. She has taught me to be more compassionate, empathetic, understanding, patient, tolerant, respectful, and the amount of work and dedication it takes to properly raise a child. She also singlehandedly dismantled previously held distorted views and stereotypes I regrettably adopted about the limitations and roles of women and girls I learned growing up.
The birth of a child changes a parent and alters the trajectory of their lives forever. The new family member becomes the heartbeat of their sphere and center of their orbit. A child creates a tectonic shift in their thinking, redefines their identity, and introduces them to a new concept of love.

Having a daughter has taught me that the refrain women and girls "should stay in their 
place" is flawed and offensive. Instead, I now recognize and know that a woman or girl's place is everywhere. It took her birth for me to truly recognize the importance of gender equality and fierce urgency of combating female objectification and misogyny.

I am now the first to admit I have made mistakes in the past when it comes to some of the shameful views about gender roles, the myths of male privilege, and corrosiveness of pernicious patriarchy that I learned growing up in a morally challenged society. My daughter has created paradigm shifts in my life that would not have occurred absent her enormous presence in my life.

Gone from my life are the distorted views of power imbalances and limitations which previously mislead me to regrettably believe it was acceptable for women to be subjected to in relationships. My daughter deconstructed the false notion that women are subordinate to men in relationships, and replaced it with the wisdom that men and women must always be equals.

The birth of my daughter has also provided me myriad didactic lessons in humanity, and the need to assiduously strive to fulfill the most important role and responsibility I will ever have in life: to become the best father I can ever be, empower my daughter to accomplish anything her male counterparts can in life, and relentlessly foster her genius.

My wife and I are reminded about the caring and empathetic qualities of our daughter as she channels these characteristics in her daily life. 

Last year she became the first second-grader in her school to be awarded the "Kind Hero Award" for helping a little boy from her class find his lost lunch 
money in the cafeteria. She even reminds my wife and I during conversations we are having that she senses tension in that we aren't using empathy.

Within recent weeks my daughter brought the presence of a knife she discovered in the school bathroom to the attention of her teacher which likely averted a potentially harmful situation. She constantly reflects the lessons my wife and I instill in her about treating others the way we want to be treated and valuing the lives and wellbeing of others.

I believe we can be the catalyst for change in prison and beyond its walls by offering incarcerated men healthy alternative narratives to consider about women and girls so they can learn, change, and grow. It is one way to help them reshape the contours of their consciousness and make our communities safer since 90% of them will return to society one day.

I can't think of many better places than prisons to foster the eradication of 
toxic masculinity and transform adult males into men of integrity. Men who remain dysfunctional and mentally incarcerated will return to society as liabilities instead of assets. It is imperative that we encourage them to become their best and leave a legacy of responsible manhood for the next generation.

As incarcerated fathers learn the skills to serve and support our children they will become equipped to reduce the risk of children developing ungovernable behaviors or becoming susceptible to maladaptive reactions in one or more areas of functioning. They will also recognize we collectively have an obligation to help children thrive, maximize their potential, and fulfill their dreams. In so doing they can become a driving force to strengthen and stabilize families and communities.

Efforts like "One Day With God" camps can help vanquish the miasma of paralyzing fear and despair that has held incarcerated fathers captive far too long. They may not be a panacea, but they are certainly a worthy enterprise producing compelling results which deserve widespread public support.

Previous to the camp I have avoided discussing my daughter in writings I share in the public domain to shield her from the public eye. The treasured experience of our day together at the "One Day With God" camp was so important, however, that I felt I should share it in hopes that others can learn and benefit from its lessons and insight.

One of the biggest takeaways from the camp is how much children need their fathers in their lives. If I was able to impact my daughter's life the way I did in a single day during the camp it is a testament to the profound impact I will be able to have on her life daily when I am fortunate enough to be released. Being a constant presence in her life will allow me to inspire her to 
continue being confident, brilliant, and be her best self each day.

In the meantime I look forward to my daughter receiving the video of camp photographs from event organizers so she can revisit the memories of that day whenever she desires. It will also serve as a frequent reminder to her about how much her father loves her and how proud I am she is my daughter.

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner and subject of a new multi-channel documentary film installation, "Half Truths and Full Lies." He is also a blogger, social justice activist, and youth advocate. You can learn more about Efren by visiting www.fb.com/Free.Efren and www.tinyurl.com/Efren1016.)


Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Ambassadors of Light (Part 2 of 3)

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

Day Two

Saturday morning I woke up at 4:30 am and could not return to sleep. I had a difficult time getting to sleep the previous night eagerly anticipating what the following day would be like. My mind raced as I tried hard not to forget everything I wanted to tell my daughter that day.

I knew there would be no do over; no second chance to make a first impression to my daughter on this day. We would be together seven hours and it would be the first time we spent time together apart from her mother. I wanted to make her proud and it was my fervent hope that I wouldn't disappoint her in any way.

It would be the first time my daughter would 
enter the prison beyond the visiting room. We would be able to do a range of fun activities fathers and daughters normally do in society daily for the first time ever; activities we were previously prevented from doing in the visiting room since her birth eight-and-a-half years ago due to inordinate visiting room restrictions.

That morning I brushed my teeth, took a hot shower, shaved, and began the day. I combed my hair and put gel in it to hold it in place, knowing we would be having a busy day packed with fun activities. I wanted my hair to look nice for my daughter because there would be photographers capturing images of the event all day long.

After getting ready I listened to a relaxing song named "Slow Burn" by Richard Elliot. I needed to relax and dissolve some of the excitement that was relentlessly vying to consume me. I picked up the letter I wrote my daughter the previous night, a 
certificate of commitment to raise her with Christian principles I received during the seminar the previous day, and proceeded to the educational building where day two of the camp would begin at 7:30 am.

It was raining and I worried that it might complicate bringing the children in to the prison later that morning. I was determined to remain optimistic though and not allow the weather to eclipse the illumination of our special day. We had prepared for this day for weeks now and the part of the camp that would include our children was only a couple hours away.

After arriving at the school building the prisoners in the camp gathered with volunteers in a classroom where we ate a breakfast provided by the volunteers similar to the one the previous day. We were each given green T-shirts with the "1 Day With God" logo silk-screened on them to wear instead of the state blue issued shirts we normally wear daily. We were also provided lanyards and name tags.

We were then allowed to 
select a blanket for our child(ren) from among dozens of beautiful blankets made by camp volunteers. After looking at several of them I decided on a pink and white satin blanket that felt really soft. I wrapped myself in the blanket for a little while as I sat in my chair thinking about my daughter before placing it inside the backpack I packed with toys for my daughter the previous day.

As all the incarcerated fathers waited to see their child(ren) we sang songs lead by award-winning gospel recording artist Sonnie Day. A lifelong resident of Detroit, she has appeared on major stages, television networks, and radio stations across the country. She is also founder and executive director of the organization Ruby Girl, an Angel Tree advocate, vision coach, and entrepreneur.

Sonnie offered testimony about her travels to over 70 different prisons in seven different states with Prison Fellowship and Forgiven Ministry. She shared how God has used the gift of her voice to inspire social change, how the former incarceration of her daughter's father impacted their lives, and asked the prisoner fathers in the camp about the experiences and events which lead to their incarceration.

During her message Sonnie stated that the prison industrial complex experiment has woefully failed our communities, masked the true causes of crime (i.e., poverty, addiction, absence of fathers in the home, etc.), and described how it has disproportionately impacted the poor and communities of color.

She espouses the belief that crime reduction can only occur by understanding the root of the problem rather than blindly spending taxpayer dollars on the 
symptoms. During her presentation she was accompanied by her mother who was also there to support the incarcerated fathers and the camp.

Sonnie's presentation was followed by testimony from Sherelle Hogan, author of "The Prisoner's Kid: My Journey to Freedom." She is also founder and president of Pure Heart Foundation, a community-based nonprofit organization in Detroit.

Sherelle shared her turbulent story about growing up between the ages of six and 14-years-old as the daughter of two incarcerated parents. During that time she suffered beatings, sexual assault, attempted suicide multiple times, and experienced a series of devastating setbacks. Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges she encountered Sherelle managed to overcome them through her journey of healing.

She eventually found a faith-based mentor, became involved in the church, and began transforming her life. She went on to graduate from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, with a degree in psychology and created Pure Heart Foundation to help prevent other youth of an incarcerated parent from enduring a painful childhood that resembled her own.

The foundation provides counseling, tutoring, mental wellness sessions, after school programs, 
scholarships, Christmas gifts, and more to children who have an incarcerated parent. It also offers a safe space for children where they can learn and grow together with others who share their struggles so they don't feel abandoned or alone.

The children of the incarcerated fathers began arriving at a local church at 8 am to be registered and treated to a large array of breakfast choices. The children were also paired with two Forgiven Ministry mentors who would escort each child into the prison later that morning. The objective of arriving early was also so the volunteers could spend time interacting with the children and mothers or caregivers so they would become more familiar and comfortable together in advance of traveling to the prison.

Family members or other caregivers who brought the children were allowed to remain at the church for the day to hear presentations from various speakers, 
watch a movie, eat lunch, and interact with other family members of incarcerated fathers. Presenters discussed the importance of the camp with the family members and shared some of the lessons the incarcerated fathers learned the previous day.

During the presentations and singing the fathers were hearing at the prison volunteers were simultaneously transporting children from the local church to the prison's gymnasium. The children played games, could choose to have face painting, interacted with other children, ate snacks, and were kept occupied by their mentors as they waited for the remaining children to arrive.

As the volunteers traveled between the church and prison we received continued updates about their progress. Among the updates we received was that some of the families and caregivers bringing the children to the church were encountering weather and travel delays as a result of detours. The stream of updates continued to fuel our excitement as several fathers kept glancing at the clock on the wall, myself included.

During that time we also learned there were a few fathers whose children would be unable to participate for various reasons. The fathers were still encouraged to participate in the camp, however. They would be able to assist with activities, interact with the other fathers and children, and the backpack of gifts they selected for their children would be mailed to the children by camp organizers. Though the fathers were terribly disappointed by the unfortunate news they all went forward with the camp for themselves and their children.

At 11 am the moment finally arrived. After all the children arrived in the gymnasium it was time for the fathers to see their children. Some of the fathers were nervous, some were experiencing anxiety, but all were very excited. They had all been on their best behavior all year long hoping to qualify to participate in the camp.

Some of the children traveled from as far away as Georgia and Kentucky to be there that day. Their families understood the importance of the camp and were grateful to have the opportunity to have the fathers and children enjoy this special day together. Time and distance would not keep these children and the fathers apart this day.

As the fathers walked down two short hallways from the classroom we were in I felt a surge of 
energy coursing through my body. Even though I had seen my daughter on dozens of visits before this day would be completely different. It was the first time I would spend hours alone with my daughter for the first time since her birth. All our previous contact was in the visiting room, on the phone, and through letters. This day was going to be very special.

Entering the gymnasium through a small corridor I could see dozens of people who had packed the room. All the children were lined up horizontally on the opposite side of the corridor we entered with their volunteers. They were all clapping for the fathers and the children were anxiously trying to see their fathers who were in a single 
file line waiting to enter the gymnasium one at a time. The energy in the room was palpable.

I immediately spotted my daughter in the crowd. She was wearing a green T-shirt that matched the one I was wearing; pants covered in large, bold, colorful butterfly 
print; pink running shoes; and her hair was pulled back in a white cloth ponytail holder. She appeared nervous from all the noise, large crowd, and electricity in the air until she saw me.

In ancient indigenous Mexican culture it was believed that fallen warriors who died in battle returned to this life in the form of butterflies. Little did this miniature image of me know that the butterflies she wore represented enduring symbols of transformation, resilience, and migration. And on this day they would be collective icons of a new beginning for my daughter and I.

A smile quickly beamed across our faces and my daughter immediately began waving and jumping up and down with excitement. A volunteer holding a microphone introduced each father's family name over the speaker system and then each father and his child(ren) would run to meet each other in the middle of the gym.

It was the first time I was able to ever run to see my daughter. Because visiting rules prohibit a prisoner from holding their child after age two I had also not been able to hold her or pick her up in several years. This day was different though. The visiting room restrictions didn't 
apply to the camp. An atmosphere for fathers and their child(ren) to bond and strengthen their relationship would be fostered in the camp, unlike in visiting rooms which are designed to keep parents and their children apart.

For years I felt bad because my daughter would ask me to pick her up or carry her and I wasn't allowed to do it. I feared she felt I didn't want to do it or couldn't lift her anymore because she had grown older. As these thoughts vacillated in the recesses of my mind my daughter and I ran out to meet in the center of the gymnasium. I immediately wrapped my arms around her, picked her up, and held her in the air. With tears of joy running down my face I told her I loved her and I was very happy to see her.

In a small voice full of excitement she said, "I love you and I'm happy to see you too. Daddy, you can still pick me up!" It reinforced my thinking that she still yearned to have her father pick her up even after all this time. As I looked at her beautiful little face I quickly noticed the "#1 Dad" face painting she proudly wore on her left cheek. When I told her how nice it looked she thanked me and told me she had it done by a volunteer while she waited to see me.

I also met the two volunteer mentors named Deb and Arthur who were assigned to assist my daughter and I throughout the day. They were both very nice people who had quickly bonded with my daughter that morning. I would later learn that Deb was the wife of Mike, a church pastor and one of the presenters the previous day who taught us lessons about fatherhood. Arthur was also a mentor the previous day. I recalled him being one of the men who prayed for us.

Two photographers remained present all day long. They captured dozens of treasured moments of each activity -- hundreds throughout the day -- to be used in a video that camp organizers 
create after the event. Camp organizers mail a video to each child who participated in the camp to cherish the memories of that special day. The first image photographers captured of my daughter and I that day was the moment we first ran out to each other for the first time when I picked her up and held her in the air.

Soon after exchanging pleasantries with our mentors John Spencley, Assistant Deputy Warden/Operations, expressed his hopes for a productive day on behalf of Warden Lester Parish's office. ADW Spencley remained present for a couple hours on the Warden's behalf because he was out of state and unable to be present himself.

As I held my daughter during ADW Spencley's remarks she took one of her small hands and began waving it through my hair and said, "Gel, huh?" I nodded up and down, laughed, and silently thought to myself, "So much for waking up early and working hard to look good for 
photos today." I quickly reminded myself that my hair looked nice for my daughter when she first saw me that day and that's what mattered. It was a minor problem I could fix later.

The first round of activities included fathers and their children participating in various games involving running, dribbling a basketball, jumping through a large hoop, running toward a chair with a balloon in it and popping the balloon by sitting on it; and running toward a small basket with a tennis ball, placing the ball in the basket, grabbing a different ball in the basket, and running to give it to the next person in line to repeat the process.

All the fathers and children were divided into four lines/teams to compete against each other during the games. Volunteers were on the sidelines cheering for the teams clapping and yelling 
words of encouragement. It was a joy to see all the children ranging from ages five to teenagers running, playing, laughing, and having a wonderful time.

For my daughter and I it would be creating memories of numerous firsts in our father/daughter experience. In this instance it was the first time we were able to compete together as a team in a fun physical activity. I was also able to cheer her on and encourage her as we competed. I am unable to do that for her with her mother, sister, and grandparents during her soccer games so it meant a lot me that I could do it for her this day.

Neither of us had ever seen the other run before or dribble a basketball. We were both almost amazed to see the other person running and dribbling. It was a proud moment to see my little girl exhibiting athletic skills I hadn't seen before. In fact, it made me consider encouraging her to play on a basketball team considering how well she could dribble.

One funny moment that occurred happened after my daughter ran during one of the competitions we participated in. Speaking through giggles as she held a hand over her mouth she said, "I just swallowed my mocos! Has that ever happened to you before Daddy?" I laughed and responded, "Yes ma, it happened when I was a little kid before too. Don't worry it won't hurt you." ("Mocos" are Spanish for nasal drainage.)

Next it was time for fathers and their children to showcase their dance moves. Fathers and their children formed a Soul Train line and danced between two rows of fathers and their children as singer Sonnie Day M.C.'d the event. It was only the second event and my daughter was nervous and shy about dancing in the large crowd of people because we were the first group to dance.
After all the fathers and children danced the first time it was time for my daughter and I to give it one more try. The second time we went down the line she did a couple moves as I turned toward her, danced so she could see me in front of her, and encouraged her to follow me. After we finished I hugged her and told her she did a great job which helped ease her nervousness.

Next it was time for lunch. My daughter directed me to where our table was on the other side of the gym where our mentors waited for us. We talked with the volunteers while we ate hamburgers, potato chips, dessert, and drank iced tea. I drank several cups of iced tea the previous day and wasn't surprised my daughter would want to drink it as well. We had a choice between iced tea, lemonade, coffee and/or water.

One pleasant surprise was volunteers presenting a large birthday cake that was taken to each table for everyone to see. It symbolized a birthday that year for every child present and was an opportunity for the fathers to sing Happy Birthday to their child(ren) and share a piece of cake with them since they are physically unable to do so on their actual birthday unless they are on a visit together.

For some mysterious reason my daughter decided she was no longer going to eat cake or chocolate anymore about two years ago. Consequently, she passed on eating a piece of the birthday cake. When one of the volunteers told us there were also chocolate chip cookies, M&M cookies, and peanut butter protein bars my daughter opted for a protein bar. When it arrived she opened it, saw chocolate chips on top, and told me she didn't want it.

We managed to locate some trail mix that was acceptable to her. Even that proved to be challenging though. She separated the raisins and M&Ms from the peanuts in the trail mix, ate the peanuts, and gave me the rest. Needless to say, I ate M&Ms, raisins, and the protein bar, which was fine with me because I like them all. As long as she was happy that's all that counted to me.

During lunch my daughter and I were called over to an area of the gymnasium to have our photo taken in front of a "1 Day With God" backdrop. We took a photo and then we were asked by a volunteer to 
select from among several cut outs of leaves to be glued onto a painting of a tree. The tree was labeled "1 Day With God 2018 Camp" and will remain on display in the Chaplain's office. Some facilities display the paintings in the visiting room.

I told my daughter to pick whichever leaf she wanted and she was then allowed to write her name on the leaf with a marker and point anywhere on the tree she wanted to have it glued to. When she pointed to an area above the trunk of the tree I told her that the trunk was the strongest part of the tree. She smiled as the volunteer glued her leaf on the tree.

A stickler for detail just like her father, before we returned back to our table as my daughter saw her leaf get glued on the tree she noticed the leaf's stem was not glued down all the way with the rest of the leaf. She walked over to the painting, took her small index finger, and pressed down on the stem for a few seconds until it remained glued in 
place. I smiled at my daughter, told her I was glad she saw it, and assured her it was perfect now. In that moment my mind flashed back to an image of my younger self.

The next activity involved fathers and their child(ren) creating a small 
lampshade together for a small candle-style lamp. We had to use safety pins, different sizes of plastic crystal beads, and wire to construct the craft project. At first my daughter was insistent on opening and closing the safety pins herself. I was afraid she might poke herself -- and she came close to doing it one time -- so I was able to convince her we should compromise.

We agreed that one of our assigned volunteers named Arthur would hand us the beads to put on the safety pins, I would open the safety pins, my daughter and I would both put the beads on the pins, and then I would hold each pin in place while I guided the pointed end to the part of the pin it closes at so she just had to push it into place.

It was the first time we tackled a tedious task like this together. The closest we ever came to this in the visiting room was doing a large puzzle together but we couldn't get poked by that. Afterwards we walked over to a wall with our finished lamp. I unraveled the power cord and I told my daughter to plug it into the wall to ensure it worked. We took a photograph together with our lamp and returned the lamp to our table before being called to our next activity.

Next fathers and their child(ren) were called back to the open area of the gymnasium and handed two activity workbooks titled "Sowing Seeds of Connection: Cultivating the Parent/Child Relationship Workbook" by Justin Danforth.

The workbook is comprised of several pages of questions and activities the father and child(ren) can ask each other to learn more about one another. My daughter and I stretched out on the floor on our side, across from one another as we faced each other, and asked each other questions from the workbook. Each time someone answered a question the other person would write it down in their workbook.

During this activity my daughter said, "Daddy, I never saw you lay down before until today! I didn't even know you could lay down." It hadn't really dawned on me that the only things my daughter has ever seen me do is walk a few steps, stand, and sit during our visits. I was beginning to realize how little she has seen me do and just assumed she knew I could do the things I can do. That day I was becoming more of a real, whole person to her through all our interactions and bonding moments.

A short time later she asked, "Daddy, are those the shoes you wear in here [meaning inside the prison]?" I responded, "Yes," and told her I hand-washed them so they would be clean for her. She smiled and raised her eyebrows with surprise. I was discovering just how much alike we are when it comes to paying attention to details. I was really glad I did it now because she learned I went through the effort of cleaning them and making them mark-free just for her.

As we worked through a couple pages of questions we had fun learning things about each other. I told my daughter when the camp was over she would take her workbook with her and I would take mine with me so we can 
continue working through the workbook together. She liked that idea and said, "OK Daddy, when I go to the hotel with Mommy tonight when you call us on the phone we will work on it."

Surprised by her enthusiasm I told her, "That sounds great but tonight just relax and get some rest. Spend time with Mommy and tell her about our day, she has been at the church all day and she wants to spend time with you. We will work on the workbook again soon." She agreed and thought that sounded like a good idea. Plus, she was still looking forward to swimming that evening 
in the hotel swimming pool.

Next on the day's agenda was a presentation by a man named Yago who performs strong man feats for entertainment. This day he blew up a rubber hot water bottle until it popped, bent a horse-shoe into the shape of a heart, bent a pole into the shape of a fish, and rolled up a frying pan into the shape of a burrito. Yago also discussed the importance of surrendering our lives to God and making important changes in his life through his faith.

My daughter and I sat down on the gymnasium floor during the presentation and she decided to choose this time to take a break by using me like the back of a chair behind her. As she sat in front of me she laid her head on my chest for a few minutes as I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her. She also spent a few minutes using my legs as a pillow to lay on while facing the presenter so she could take a rest and 
watch the presentation as I rubbed her back.

Periodically I asked my daughter how she was feeling or what was on her mind. She said she was feeling fine and just seemed a bit tired from the pace of the day, not to mention the emotional exhaustion I knew she had to be feeling. As I looked around several children of other fathers were napping, laying down, hugging or being hugged by their fathers, during this time as well.

I make a point of being a good listener when I communicate with my daughter so she feels validated and knows her thoughts matter. I even ask her for advice as a way to begin a dialogue regularly to learn how she may approach a situation and help her develop critical thinking skills. Research informs us that the best way to have a good conversation or be an effective communicator is to be the first person to listen. 

After the strong man presentation the next event was the highly anticipated Daddy/daughter dance followed by the father/son walk. It was a part of the camp volunteers told fathers the previous day would be very emotional. We were warned that nearly all the female volunteers and many of the males present often cry during that time. I would soon learn that prediction proved true.

Before the dance began each of the fathers were called to the open area of the gym to receive a rose for their daughter(s). After receiving the rose I presented it to my daughter, gave her a kiss on the cheek, picked her up, and we danced during two slow songs that played on the speakers. Everyone's focus in the room descended on this moment as they looked on to the fathers dancing with their beautiful princesses.

When my daughter took the rose she smiled big and thanked me. Shortly after I picked her up I told her I loved her and what a special daughter she is. Tears streamed down my face as I apologized to her for being unable to take her to her first two Daddy/daughter dances in First and Second Grade and having to ask one of my brothers to take her for me. I promised her when I go home one day that I will never 
miss any of her Daddy/daughter dances for anything in the world.

As I spoke to my daughter tears began running down her face as well as she told me she couldn't wait for me to come home to not just take her to her Daddy/daughter dances but also attend her soccer games, spend time with her and the family, and do other fun things with her. She also said, "I wish Mom was here with us to see all this," and that she wished there was a camp for Moms and Dads like this too.

A volunteer handed my daughter some tissue which she used to wipe the tears from our eyes as we continued dancing. It was now the second time she saw my tears that day, and the first day in her life to ever see them. Recognizing this she stated, "Daddy you are really emotional." I told her it was alright and that they were tears of joy. I also told her it was good for people to let their tears out and not suppress them because it is healthy for us and will help us feel better.

A short time later my daughter gave me a puzzled look as she noticed something black on the tip of my nose. It was remnants of her face paint that had virtually melted away from the sweat generated by the activities of the day and frequent hugs we had given each other. As she attempted to wipe the paint off with her finger she discovered it wouldn't wipe off.

Remaining true to form, and refusing to acquiesce to the stubborn paint, she quickly recalled an effective Mommy technique previously used on her from her catalog of memories. She knew it would do the trick. Without hesitation she put her index finger on her tongue to moisten it and then used it to wipe the paint off. Satisfied with her success she nodded her head up and down and said, "You're good." 

After we danced it was time for the father/son walk, another really special moment. The open area of the gym was now exclusively available to fathers and sons. The fathers walked around with their sons, held them, and some gave them piggyback rides. My daughter and I went over to our table and sat for a while as we watched the fathers interacting with their sons.

While seated at the table I asked my daughter if she was comfortable sharing the daily affirmation I wrote for her with Deb and Arthur. She reads me the affirmation regularly on the phone but she had never read it to me face to face and I thought this would be a good time to do it if she was comfortable. Without hesitation she agreed to share it with Deb and Arthur as well.

I also wanted my daughter to share her affirmation so that others would recognize its value and perhaps consider encouraging fathers to write daily affirmations for their children as part of the camp in the future. I have written one for my daughter each year she has been in school to address her evolving needs and maturity and I am committed to 
continue doing so until she completes high school.

During this time I also took the opportunity to share the origin of my daughter's first and middle name with our mentors to share the importance of bestowing empowering names on our children. Her first and middle name have indigenous Mexican origins. Her first name is derived from a name that means "I love you" and her middle name means "the seed that can transform into anything."

The mentors praised my daughter about her names and it was a positive experience for her. It was a proud moment to share with people in my daughter's presence about how much effort, love, and care went into selecting the names my wife and I did for her. They are powerful names that serve as daily reminders to her about her greatness and boundless potential.

Next the fathers were given time to spend with their children anywhere in the gymnasium. They could 
choose to walk around together or have a seat and talk together. I asked my daughter what she wanted to do and she asked me to give her a piggyback ride. I gave her a piggyback ride for a few minutes for the first time during our interaction ever. Piggyback rides are not allowed in visiting rooms.

After her piggyback ride she wanted to show me she could do push-ups and she asked me to do some pull-ups on the pull-up bar. She counted out loud until I completed 10 and then we sat down on a chair and listened as she told me how much fun we were having that day. I took the opportunity to also tell her how much her mother loves her and what a great parent she is. I expressed to her that it was important to never take her mother for granted and all she does for her each day.

Shortly after this part of the camp fathers and their children were called to the front of the gymnasium along with their children. The fathers were told this was the part of the day when they would perform the Father's Blessing which they learned and practiced the previous day during the "Godly Dads" training. It consisted of fathers standing directly in front of their child, putting their hands on the child's shoulders, looking them in the eye, and telling them the following four things followed by hugging and giving them a kiss:

"I love you.
I am so proud of you!
You are a wonderful daughter/son.
I am so glad you are my child."

I did as instructed, however, before hugging and kissing my daughter I squatted down so we could be eye to eye and, with my hands still on her shoulders I shared additional things I wanted to tell her. I told her how smart, beautiful, and brave she is and indexed a number of specific things she does or has done that I am proud of her for.

I wanted to be specific and not generalize or gloss over anything so that she recognized how much I pay attention to her life and remember about the details. I also wanted the blessing to be unique to her so she would know it was very personal and wanted the moment to be seared into her memory. As soon as I concluded the blessing my daughter smiled, thanked me, hugged me, and gave me a kiss. 
My daughter loved the photo and picture frame and asked me right away if I decorated the picture frame for her. After confirming that I did, she looked closely at all the things I put on the frame and quickly made the connections I intended her to make with the things I chose to put on the frame (i.e., images of animals resembling her pets, her favorite animated movie characters, etc.).

The next to final activity of the day was the presentation of gifts. When my daughter and I walked back to our table she found the photo we took earlier in front of the "One Day With God 2018 Camp" backdrop. It had been printed and placed inside the picture frame I decorated for her the previous day. Volunteers had printed the photos and inserted them in all the picture frames for each child while we were participating in other activities.

I then walked over to a table in the back of the gymnasium where all the backpacks were located that we had placed our gifts inside for our children. I found my daughter's backpack and carried it over to the table she was seated at. I began removing each gift from the backpack for my daughter, one by one, as I briefly told her why I specifically chose each gift.

As she beamed with joy and excitement she stated, "Daddy I'm going to save this backpack and these gifts forever so I never forget this day!" It was the most excited I had ever seen her before. It felt good to actually physically give my daughter gifts I picked for her from my hands directly to hers. That, too, was another first in our interaction since her birth because prisoners are prohibited from giving or receiving gifts in the visiting room. Doing so would be considered smuggling and result in a permanent visitor restriction.

I presented my daughter with the letter I wrote her the previous evening which she read to me. I also signed a 
certificate of commitment in front of her promising to raise her using spiritual values and presented it to her. I removed my green "1 Day With God" camp T-shirt, wrote a message on it, and placed it in her backpack to take home with her. (She told me she would use it to sleep in.)

I gave my daughter the camp name tag I wore that day sans the lanyard which we returned to camp organizers. Our mentors wrote messages on her camp T-shirt, I wrote a message on it, and my daughter and I wrote thank you messages on our mentors' camp T-shirts as well.

A short time later we prepared for the final part of the camp. One of our mentors, Deb, retrieved my daughter's pink Columbia fleece jacket from the room it was kept in during the camp and offer it to my daughter. I reached out to accept the little jacket so I could hold it for my daughter to put her arms through.

It was the first time I had ever helped my daughter put a jacket on before because coats and jackets are not allowed in visiting rooms. Even though it was a small gesture it was one among a series of memories I wanted to remain in my daughter's mind about that day. We gathered all my daughter's gifts, her letter, certificate, lamp, and workbook and carefully packed her backpack to capacity. 

Once we were done gathering things all the fathers, children, and volunteers walked through a hallway of the building the gymnasium is located in. As we exited the building together we were each given helium balloons to take outside with us. We walked a short distance away from the building and gathered in a large grassy area of the prison. The sun was now out as it peeked out through the pockets of white, fluffy clouds in the sky.

Two large fences laced with razor wire separated us from the parking lot. Lined up on the other side of the fence and facing us were family members ready to pick up our children. They were accompanied by volunteers from the local church who hosted them throughout the day. My daughter and I recognized her mother right away as we waved to each other and yelled each other's names.

We sang a song together and shortly thereafter a volunteer with a bullhorn announced, "Children, if you know your father loves you release your balloons." My daughter and all the other children present released their balloons. The next announcement was, "All the fathers who love their children release your balloons." As all the fathers released their balloons I picked my daughter up and we watched the sea of balloons being slowly carried off by the gentle Fall breeze.

We were then given the final opportunity to say our farewells. I thanked our mentors Deb and Arthur and expressed I was very grateful for them, their time, and efforts. I then hugged and kissed my daughter and we both told each other how wonderful our day was together.

As I began walking back to the building that houses the gymnasium my daughter and I started waving to each other. She ran towards me for one more hug when I was a short distance away and then quickly returned to Deb and Arthur. Once all the fathers returned to the building the children and volunteers were escorted by prison staff through a gate to the parking lot and the children were reunited with their mothers or caregivers.

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner and subject of a new multi-channel documentary film installation, "Half Truths and Full Lies." He is also a blogger, 
social justice activist, and youth advocate. You can learn more about Efren by visiting www.fb.com/Free.Efren and www.tinyurl.com/Efren1016.)



Thursday, October 25, 2018

Ambassadors of Light (Part 1 of 3)




by Efren Paredes, Jr.

"Our greatest natural resource and most valuable asset are truly our children." 
--Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson, Louisiana Supreme Court--

Day One

October 5-6, 2018 twenty-two prisoners participated in the "One Day With God" camp held at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, Michigan. The camp is hosted by trained volunteers of Forgiven Ministry, a North Carolina-based faith-based organization founded by Scottie Barnes.

Forgiven Ministry currently hosts the camp at prisons in seven different states. During camps incarcerated parents and their children are guided through a series of structured activities by trained Christian mentors involving a combination of teaching family values, relationship-building, and fun. A great deal of time, preparation, and resources are invested into making each camp possible.

Proponents of accountability and positive inner change, Forgiven Ministry believes this formula can reduce recidivism, help break the destructive cycle of crime, and prevent the waste of human capital. They also hope to help diminish the burden that offenders incur on society. In 2015 the camp received national attention when "ABC Nightline" featured a story about one of the camps held at a prison in Muskegon, Michigan.

Criteria for incarcerated fathers of children to participate in the "One Day With God" camp are strict. The opportunity is only afforded to prisoners who are free of serious misconduct reports for over a year and who also meet several other conditions. Because the prison is responsible for the safety of each child who enters the facility the Warden's office carefully screens the institutional 
file of every camp applicant before approving him.

The "One Day With God" camp is a two-day event. The first day the incarcerated fathers participate in an eight-and-a-half hour spiritually-based program designed to teach them valuable lessons and values about fatherhood which include integrity, love, and leadership. Each prisoner is assigned a mentor to 
guide him throughout the day.

The camp is held in the prison gymnasium which is located in the educational building. Day one of the camp half the gymnasium was used by volunteers to make presentations to prisoners replete with microphones, a large sound system, laptop, digital projector, and projection screen. The other end of the gymnasium was used to store food, drinks, and other items used during the camp.

Tables were set up to seat two prisoners and two volunteer mentors. The mentors were seated on the end of each table and prisoners were seated between them. On the table in front of each prisoner was a small stack of faith-based books, a boxed tube of Aim 
toothpaste, two bars of Dial soap, a pack of Skittles, and a blue pen.

The mentors seated at my table that day were Bernice and Jack. They were both very kind people who assisted the other prisoner seated at my table named De'Von and me throughout the day. They even provided us with food, snacks, and drinks from the other end of the gymnasium when we requested something to eat or drink. They did this so we could remain focused on the presentations as much as possible, and to model the value of service to others.

The day began with an introduction to the camp, prayer, and program volunteers offering the prisoners a breakfast provided by Forgiven Ministry consisting of an assortment of bagels, danishes, granola bars, and orange juice. The meal was followed by presentations from various speakers who taught from the book "Godly Dads" by Jeff Rudd. They also offered testimony about the power of God and forgiveness.

Among the messages presenters shared with us were that fatherhood is an awesome opportunity to teach, to love, to nurture and to grow. They also impressed upon us the importance of understanding that to raise children of integrity fathers must become men of integrity.

According to Depaul University Professor Susan Bandes, "Each individual is situated in her own experience. In 
order to interpret and understand that experience, each individual must filter it through the lens of her own point of view. Who we are determines what we notice, what seems important, how we react to it, what connections we draw, and what meaning we attach to things."

This is all the more reason that nurturing integrity is so important in our lives if we wish to be conduits to convey edifying lessons to our children. Our values are not static. They are formed and continually refined by our experiences and the choices we make in our lives. Just as we are a product of our collective experiences, so too are the people we influence with our words and the behavior we model.

We heard about the need for fathers to convey their love for their children and that love is the centerpiece in our relationship with our children. A list of ten evidence-based ways that fathers impact their children was also indexed, as well as spiritual characteristics of love and how to exercise them.

There were also lessons about leadership and leading our children by example. We heard about the value of modeling service to our children, developing our children's God-given gifts, and providing our children with knowledge or skills about relationships, life skills, and and academic skills.
After eating a lunch provided by the volunteers the incarcerated fathers were each given a plain wooden picture frame by volunteers to decorate and present to our child(ren) the following day. We were able to choose from various embellishments including an assortment of stickers, glitter hearts, and shiny small plastic stones to decorate our frame however we wanted.

I carefully selected my daughter's favorite colored stones, cartoon characters, hearts, and stickers that resembled her dogs and cats. I also traded stickers with other fathers who had stickers I wanted to use if they didn't use them. I went to different tables looking at any stickers that weren't being used to see if I could discover some I could use. That effort paid off. I managed to locate some I knew she would like, including the letter of her first name, some emojis, and characters from the animated movie "Frozen."

We were also given a green backpack with a large "One Day With God" logo on it and allowed to choose five age appropriate gifts from an array of items for our child(ren) to place inside the backpack to give them the following day. One of the mentors told me her 8-year-old daughter helped her pick the gift options for the gifts in my daughter's age range and said, "I know whoever receives these things will like them."

From among the wonderful gifts available I selected a kit my daughter could use to 
create Max the dog from the movie "The Secret Life of Pets," a Trolls bath bomb, stickers, a 3-D coloring book of dogs and cats, and a bucket of sidewalk chalk in assorted colors. My daughter has two Chihuahua dogs and two cats as pets at home so I knew she would like my choices. She also likes the "Trolls" movie characters and bath bombs so that would be a good choice as well.

That afternoon we also heard a presentation by Lorraine Whoberry, author of, "Heal My Wounds, Leave My Scars: A Mother's Story of Loss, Despair, and Her Journey Back to Hope." She is also a victim advocate, executive director of the S.T.A.C.I.E. Foundation, and committee member for the Department of Youth Services, Interstate Compact for Juveniles State Council.

Lorraine shared her heart-wrenching story about being the mother and survivor of two teenage daughters who were viciously attacked in 1999 by a 20-year-old male in Virginia. One of her daughters was murdered in the attack and the other miraculously survived potentially life-ending wounds to multiple areas of her body.

After several years of grappling with immense pain, despair, and intense anger toward her daughter's killer she turned her life and struggles over to God and began the process of healing. She also found freedom from the bondage of unforgiveness by learning to forgive herself and ultimately the offender who committed the violent crime against her family.

It wasn't an endorsement of the injury the offender caused but rather an act of mercy and self-empowerment. It allowed Lorraine to reclaim her life and migrate from a position of strength from victim to survivor. She also discovered that forgiveness is a moral virtue that we exercise in alignment with the teachings of Jesus who stated:

"If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Holy Bible, Matthew 6:14-15)

According to Lorraine, "We have the power to heal. When we give in to defeat we give power to darkness. Forgiveness is a process. It's also a choice. Unforgiveness is bondage. Forgiveness is freedom." Her message reflected the adage that bitterness does more damage to the vessel in which it is stored than to the vessel on which it is poured.

Today Lorraine travels the country bravely sharing her story of perseverance, faith, and healing as an impact speaker. She and her daughter Kristie have been featured on television programs like "America's Most Wanted," "The Montel Williams Show," "I Survived," and "Discovery Health." Lorraine has also appeared on various radio talk shows and been the keynote speaker at conferences across the nation.

Her riveting testimony was a profound lesson in forgiveness that evoked tears and touched the heart of every person in the room, myself included. Lorraine's willingness to 
continue speaking to an audience of prisoners and teaching them about forgiveness despite the painful psychological and emotional scars her family has suffered was powerful and compelling.

After Lorraine's presentation we watched a movie titled, "I Can Only Imagine." The film was based on the true story about an aspiring music artist who grew up in a troubled home with an abusive father. He moves away from home and returns later to discover his father has changed after 
giving his life to God.

The son forgives his father and they begin to rebuild their lives together. The father later dies from an illness and the son continues pursuing his dream as a musician. After a number of struggles he goes on to become a multiplatinum selling gospel music artist. The movie was another example about the transformative power of forgiveness and redemption.

After the conclusion of the film camp volunteers recapped the day with the incarcerated fathers and discussed what the following day would be like when their child(ren). We were told they would be brought into the prison gymnasium each accompanied by two Forgiven Ministry mentors and they described the wide range of activities we would be participating in together.

We were also given an assignment to write a one-page letter to our child(ren) telling them how much we love them, how proud we are of them, how wonderful they are, and how glad we are they are our child. That night I spent two hours composing the best letter I could write my daughter that she would be proud of and able to 
read on her own.

I wanted my letter to be special and something my daughter would keep and always cherish. In 
order to accomplish this my words had to be selective, impactful, and enduring. After composing a few iterations of the letter I managed to distill everything I wanted to say down to a single typed page and finally settled on the final version. I was now ready to present it to her the following day.

Before laying down for the night I also ironed the clothing I would be wearing the following day. I hand-washed the clothes the previous evening along with the white athletic 
shoes I would be wearing so they would be clean. It would be the first time my daughter saw me wearing athletic shoes because prisoners must wear state-issued black oxford shoes during visits.

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner and subject of a new multi-channel documentary film installation, "Half Truths and Full Lies." He is also a blogger, social justice activist, and youth advocate. You can learn more about Efren by visiting www.fb.com/Free.Efren and
www.tinyurl.com/Efren1016
.)