The heart of a child believes "anything is possible." The mind of an experienced adult says "we'll see." At the Hope House Summer Camp, the power of belief, in spite of the difficult things seen and experienced, won out.
On a hot summer day last June, several strangers met at Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, prepared to take a journey together and live as family for a week. The group included 11 children, ages 8 to 14, who shared one common thread: All of them have fathers who have been incarcerated for anywhere from five to 21 years in a private prison in Youngstown, Ohio. Six adult counselors and one parent volunteer had committed to care for the children and to ensure that their journey was both safe and rewarding. The first would be easy; the second would depend on the fathers, the hand of God, and a group of kids willing to take a chance.
Carol Fennelly founded the Hope House Summer Camp Program to give Washington, D.C. children who have fathers in the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center an opportunity to spend quality time with their dads.
"Most people don't care about prison inmates; there's not even a debate anymore about rehabilitation," said Fennelly. "But people care about children. I thought maybe this way society would pay a little more attention to the problems of prison. Children need their dads." In the Hope House program, children spend one week in Ohio, splitting every day between a camp facility and time spent with their fathers at the prison. Children and fathers do a curriculum of art activities together as they bond and build relationship.
As one of the camp counselors, I was prepared for a long week of getting to know the children and some anxiety about spending time in a prison with men I had never met. Not to mention the challenges presented by supporting kids who previously had not spent this much time alone with their fathers. (Some had no idea why their fathers were in prison.) But the success of the program came in ways that none of us could have expected.
We were grouped into teams of three, one counselor with two children. Some children had seen their fathers as recently as the week before, on Fathers Day. Some had not seen their fathers since they were incarcerated.
"I would cry when he first went away," Dominique said when asked about her father, "but Daddy would write me letters and tell me always to do my homework." Jonathan told me, "I don't need to know why my dad is in prison; he has always been very good to me."
After six hours on the road, with a short stop for lunch somewhere in Pennsylvania, we arrive at Joseph Badger Meadows Camp outside of Youngstown. First things first: Every child is assigned a room, told the rules, given the schedule for the week, and asked to put their things away while the counselors prepare for dinner.
Later that evening, the children are briefed and assessed for the proper attire for entering the prison. The first time is tough because we all have to be checked in and frisked before entering the visiting area that has been designated as our family fun space for the week. The loud metal doors close behind us and I watch carefully as we settle into the room. The kids all sit quietly waiting for their fathers to enter through another metal door, while counselors busy themselves preparing the arts and crafts for the day's activity.
The men finally arrive after their own body search and ID check. The room is quiet; the air, thick. The men stand across the room, each one looking at the children as if he is trying to figure out which one is his. One of the fathers, DeWayne, says, "I haven't seen my son Diamond in five years, but I've been telling him wrongdoing gets you in prison, and 'don't follow in my footsteps.'"
We're scheduled to spend four hours a day in the prison and then have the afternoons to play games, swim, and do a host of other activities back at camp.
Art is an amazing healer and a great communication medium for character and emotions. The fathers have been given buckets of materials to use for the week. The art teacher showed them all what to do while the rest of us helped our teams come up with ideas for their projects. The first project was for each father and child to make musical instruments. They make beautiful shakers and drums, but not without some tears of frustration, many mistakes, and lots of wasted paint.
By the end of the first day, there are a few hugs and waves as we leave through a metal holding pen, file out past the guard, through the barbed wire fence, and head back to camp. We had made it. Only four days to go.
Then things became transformed, as if God suddenly filled the dads and counselors with determination that these kids have the best time of their lives. Over the next four days we went to the prison and made family flags, drums, shakers, journals, and even wall murals of dads and kids holding hands. (We had them lie down on the paper, holding hands, and traced around their bodies. Then the kids and dads used crayons, paint, or fabric to fill in their murals). The warden was so excited about what we were doing that he even allowed the murals to be hung on the walls in the visiting room. "Next year," he said, "they can paint directly on the walls."
The men came alive. The children acted as though they were at home with their dads. Six-foot-tall men crawled around on the floor with kids on their backs or paintbrushes in their hands. One dad painted the bottom of his daughter's feet so she could put footprints on their mural. We saw dads tracing stencils and cutting fabric to make hair for their daughter's pictures or spending quiet time writing in journals (after a wonderful creative writing session with poet and author E. Ethelbert Miller). Hugs and kisses abounded at the end of every day.
Many prison staffers came and shared in the amazing energy and love that filled the room each day. The warden was so impressed with the outcome of this program that the staff got together and paid for a pizza party for the dads and their children. The men were even allowed to go outside and barbeque for their children. "I wish this day would never end," said one father.
To end the week, the children arranged a performance for their dads. A 9-year-old read a love note to her father; three teen-agers sang "Lean On Me," changing the lyrics from a 'friend' to a 'dad' to lean on. There were poems about love and protection and waiting for fathers to come home. One young lady sang "Wind Beneath My Wings" and had the whole place in tears. The final day at the prison was like a scene out of a fairytale, beautiful art on the walls, words of love and encouragement, and most of all, relationships that might be changed forever.
Fennelly and others believe that these relationships are the foundation for rebuilding families and communities. The Hope House Summer Camp aims to make sure that children and fathers get the chance to begin the repairs even before the men are out of prison.
On the last day of camp, a father turned to me, his young daughter in his arms, and said, "I will never come here again. My daughter's life depends on it."
RACHEL SPAGHT is associate director of development for Sojourners. An actress and singer, she served as a counselor for the first Hope House Summer Camp. Contact Hope House, P.O. Box 2232, Youngstown OH 44504-0232.