More than 1,000 children will be spending a fun-filled, God-centered day with their imprisoned fathers in one of the nation's most notorious jails on Saturday.
The grounds of Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola has been transformed into a carnival where some 1,100 kids will enjoy crafts, games and a meal with their fathers. The event is the largest of its kind in the United States.
The Returning Hearts Celebration, 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. CT, will provide 500 participating inmates the opportunity to memorize Scripture verses together with their children in a joint effort by their prison and a youth ministry to foster better parents and children of imprisoned dads.
"Hope is rising in a place that once was considered little more than a prolonged death sentence," stated Jack Eggar, president and CEO of Awana Clubs International, whose program is run in nearly 12,000 U.S. churches and more than 4,000 churches overeseas. "We are delighted to bring a spiritual lifeline to Angola inmates and their families, just as we do throughout the world."
Warden Burl Cain of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola – the largest maximum-security facility in the country – contacted the international children and youth ministry in 2003 for help to try to reverse the trend of children of imprisoned fathers growing up and also spending time in prison.
Statistic shows that children with a parent in jail are seven times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves.
Cain – who is credited with instituting several effective programs to rehabilitate and restore inmates – was key to setting up the Awana Lifeline/Angola initiative – a four-part program to bring children closer to their fathers.
The initiative is comprised of the Returning Hearts Celebration, Malachi Dads for inmates, Lifeline clubs for their children and the year-round Lifeline Handbook program – which allows fathers and their children to work through Awana Bible lessons in tandem.
"Regardless of circumstances, children need to know their father loves them in order to grow up as emotionally healthy adults that are less likely to repeat the cycle of violence," Cain expressed in a statement.
The Returning Hearts Celebration is the annual climax of the Awana Lifeline/Angola program.
This year will also mark the completion of the first group of Malachi Dads – which teaches Christian inmates at Angola how to grow into Godly fathers and train them to spiritually discipline their children from behind bars.
Participation in the Awana program is not required for inmates and their children to participate in the event. However, on the inmate's part, good behavior throughout the year is required.
"Returning Hearts is an important step toward reconciliation between inmates and their children," said Lyndon Azcuna, director of cross-cultural ministries for Awana.
"Anyone who has witnessed the joy of this day and the way it bonds families will never forget it."
Since it began in 1950, Awana has spread out to all 50 states and 109 foreign countries in six continents. The acronym Awana comes from the first letters of Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed as taken from 2 Timothy 2:15.