By Rebekah Clayton, Guest Writer
Oliver sat in the bleachers surrounded by fellow inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola and scanned the crowds of children as they walked into the vast arena.
He searched for the face of his 14-year-old daughter as the laughter and voices of other children screaming “Daddy, daddy!” upon seeing their fathers made him more eager and excited.
Today was better than Christmas. Oliver knew that he would get the chance to embrace his daughter and spend the entire day outside playing games and talking. On this afternoon, the prison opened its doors to the children of inmates for the Returning Hearts Celebration.
A group of six students and two professors from Union University traveled to Angola to cover the RHC event. After observing students’ work at the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference, John Walton, media coordinator for Awana Lifeline, invited the Union students to take photographs and write stories about people involved with the event.
“Students were challenged to find the single and important story to tell while surrounded by compelling things,” said Jim Veneman, assistant professor of communication arts and director of visual communication at Union.
In the United States today, 2.2 million children have at least one parent in prison. These children are seven times more likely to be incarcerated themselves. A group of faithful fathers spending the rest of their lives in Angola prison desire to break the cycle. They want their children to know that they are wanted and loved. The annual event hosted by Awana Lifeline allows these men to interact with their children outside the walls of the prison’s visiting room.
Along with Veneman, Dr. Michael Chute, professor of communication arts and director of the Center for Media, Faith and Culture, accompanied the students to Louisiana.
“We prepare our students through the educational process— training them the very best way we can to tell stories through the tools of journalism: i.e., interviewing, writing and photography…. We want students to see the ‘big picture’ of how demonstration of their faith is important to the process,” Chute said.
The celebration included games, lunch and a presentation at the end of the day. Each family was partnered with a volunteer escort, but they were free to embrace their children and play whichever games they wanted.
“We were not just photographing an event like a birthday party. We were photographing an incredibly deep … moment in the lives of fathers and their children,” Veneman said.
Over the course of four days, students interacted with inmates, learning their unique stories.
“It was surprising to me that all of my presuppositions about prison … were shattered after about five minutes inside the main gates. All stereotypes were gone once we got to hear a few stories about their redemption and now thriving ministry inside the prison, “said Cari Phillips, senior public relations major.
A total of 1,462 people attended the celebration including 621 children, 262 dads and 419 volunteers.
Tammy Zilinski served as the volunteer coordinator for the first time at the RHC event.
“I’m glad to help them start their day with a smile,” Zilinski said. Help from dedicated volunteers fuels the event each year.
The prison is known as “The Farm” because of its location on 18,000 acres of land and operation as a working farm. The grounds contain five chapels, two cemeteries and The Angola Museum.
“We were operating in a different culture. It was like we got on a plane and traveled to a different place,” Veneman said.
Warden Burl Cain said he believes in moral rehabilitation. His close relationship with Art Rorheim, co-founder of Awana, is the reason the celebration takes place each year. The Malachi Dads program, sponsored by Awana Lifeline, uses the Bible to teach inmates how to be better fathers. The ministry is based on Malachi 4:6: “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” Many of the men that participated in the celebration were Malachi Dads.
“One of the inmates said he had to get ‘life’ to get ‘life,’ which was such an awesome testimony of how God’s Word and belief and hope in Christ can transform lives,” Chute said.
The families spent their time shooting basketball, climbing the rock wall and playing carnival games. At the end of the day, the gospel was presented to the children and balloons were released into the air.
“While I was saying goodbye to Kyle, one of the guys we did story on, he told me how much he appreciated us, and I started to get choked up. I had to walk away before I started crying,” said Josh Garcia, senior English major.
After waiting for hours in the hot sun, Oliver received news that his daughter was not coming. He stood off to the side, away from the other fathers and their children, and prayed with a chaplain.
“One thing we continually heard from the men was that Christ is the answer and Christ is what you are looking for,” Veneman said.
Oliver will have to wait to embrace his daughter again. Despite his disappointment, Oliver’s reaction to the situation summarizes the purpose behind the Returning Hearts Celebration.
“Praise the Lord. He is still glorified,” Oliver said.