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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 and