The prison once deemed the most violent in America hosted the nation's largest gathering of inmates and their children on Saturday to promote reconciliation and healing within families.
The Returning Hearts Celebration reunited more than 500 kids with their incarcerated dads at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for a special day of activities and bonding. The annual event enables fathers who may not have seen their sons or daughters in years to seek forgiveness and build connections in an effort to break the cycle of familial crime.
"These fathers do not want their children to end up in prison," says Jack Eggar, president and CEO of Awana Lifeline prison ministry, which initiated the Returning Hearts Celebration. "So they are intentional in encouraging and teaching their children to pursue a life of character and faith."
The program was established several years ago after Eggar and Awana Co-Founder Art Rorheim discovered that inmates in the largest maximum-security prison in the United States wanted a program to help their children grow spiritually and morally.
According to surveys, children of an incarcerated parent are seven times more likely than their peers to land in prison themselves.
Because of the experience Awana had in working with children, parents and churches, the prison's warden, Burl Cain, invited the ministry to help meet the need, leading to the creation of Awana Lifeline and the first Returning Hearts Celebration in 2004.
Since the first event, the number of children participating has increased significantly from the initial 240. Furthermore, 68 percent of guardians whose children attended the Returning Hearts Celebration reported that their children were behaving better at home and at school.
"Returning Hearts is a time when the walls come down between kids and their fathers," explains Lyndon Azcuna, Awana's director of cross-cultural ministries. "This special day gives children an opportunity to be with their fathers physically and to hear them say, 'I'm sorry' and 'I love you.' It's also a place for children to experience God's love through the changed hearts of their fathers."
The celebration features crafts, pony rides, inflatable games, sporting events and a meal in a carnival atmosphere, allowing more interaction between the inmates and their children, many of whom only see their fathers once a month at a table just to talk.
"I can't do this on a regular basis cause he's up here," said Norman Dozier III, a participant of this year's event whose father's been incarcerated for 13 years.
"Just being able to hold him, being a father to me. He's been a good father up here, but if he was outside I know he could be a better father to me," he told local TV station WAFB on Saturday.
Because of the success at Angola, Awana announced earlier this year plans to expand its Lifeline program to seven other prisons throughout the nation, including San Quentin State Prison in San Rafael, Calif.
According to a recent nationwide study conducted by the organization, 90 percent of young people who participated in Awana for at least six years still attend church regularly and many also actively practice their faith in other areas, including evangelism, church service, giving, Bible study and prayer.
Awana president Eggar says the organization has also converted many parents to Christianity as they helped their children memorize Bible verses from the Awana workbooks.
Aside from the Returning Hearts program, Awana spearheads fully integrated, Bible-based programs for ages 2 to 18 that actively involve parents, church leaders and mentors.