I have an eight-month-old son. He’s my first, so I haven’t been a dad for long, but already it’s deep in my bones. That boy is the most precious, most amazing, most important person in the world to me. I hate spending a day or even a few hours away from him. I know he grows and changes every second I’m gone.
I cherish my time with my son, but I treasured it even more when I learned about inmates in the California prison system who never, ever get to see their kids. I learned that these moms and dads, while “paying their debt to society,” are often unable to see their children for five, ten, even twenty years. They are incarcerated hundreds of miles from home and often their families simply cannot afford the trip to visit them.
I thought about what it would be like to be away from my son for that long. I can’t imagine not seeing him for, say, a month–let alone a year. To think that I wouldn’t see my little guy who’s now not even crawling and just cutting his first few teeth until he was walking and talking, eating steak or riding a bike is something I simply could not bear. Were I in such a situation, the inability to see my son for such a long time would eat at my soul. Were I a child and separated from my mom or dad that long, I would be serving a sentence myself–one that I could not understand and would not deserve.
“There are two things we have to look forward to in prison, getting out and Get On The Bus.”
At the Center for Restorative Justice, though, good people are working to lessen the severity of that sentence. Through a program called Get On The Bus, once a year, children have the opportunity to visit their parents in prison. On Mother’s Day, the group organizes bus trips to California women’s prisons, and again on Father’s Day to men’s prisons located throughout Southern California. These bus trips allow hundreds of children every year the opportunity to see, hug, play, and reconnect with moms and dads they desperately love, need and miss. I, for one, can think of few greater gifts that could be given.
“There are two things we have to look forward to in prison,” one incarcerated dad said earlier this year, “getting out and Get On The Bus.” So the story was related to me by Maria Palmer, program director of Get On The Bus for the past two years. She is someone who knows that man was not exaggerating. Having seen the power of these reunions first hand, Maria has more stories to tell than I have room here to recount.
It was the incarceration of Maria’s own father that began her journey toward becoming involved with Get On The Bus. With her father in federal prison after his involvement in an extensive federal investigation, her family was going through “a very turbulent time.” So, Maria and her husband moved from the East Coast to California in part to “get away from everything that was happening back home and…get my fresh start out here.” Then, while looking for a faith community in the area, she heard about children who were in a far worse situation than her own.
In the summer of 2005, shortly after the move, Maria attended a talk given by Sister Suzanne Jabro, CSJ, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. She was struck by this “fashionable” and “very outspoken” nun – nothing like the formal, habit-wearing nuns she was used to. At the time, Get On The Bus was in its infancy and was a Mother’s Day event focused only on women’s prisons. It was while she was watching a video presentation about the program that Maria’s eyes were opened.
“I saw all of these very young children who clearly needed their mothers, and it was probably one of the most effective but also most painful things that I’ve had to watch.” As the events of the day unfolded in the video, the process was gut-wrenching. “The reunions are really powerful…and many of the kids had not seen their parents in ten years.” Maria watched as the children ran and played with their mothers, shared a meal together, and then had to say goodbye. “It was probably about that point that I realized that what I had to go through for the last three or four years with my dad…was nothing like what these kids have to endure on a daily basis.” After the presentation, Maria approached Sr. Suzanne, explained her situation and said, “I want to help.”
That December, after not hearing from Sr. Suzanne for some six months, Maria decided to send her an e-mail. The response was immediate. Sr. Suzanne had lost Maria’s contact information and was greatly relieved. “I’ve been searching for you for six months,” she wrote, “Come to my office on Monday!” Starting out as a speaker and fund-raiser, Maria eventually made the transition to regional coordinator and then to program director. “I love the organization,” she says. It’s time consuming, it’s stressful and I don’t get much sleep. But the amount that it feeds you–it’s all worth it.”
Get On The Bus began nineteen years ago when Sr. Suzanne decided to act on Jesus’ words in Matthew 25, the parable of the sheep and the goats. The parable includes an admonition to visit those in prison in the same way that we might visit Jesus, were he imprisoned himself. So, Sr. Suzanne decided to do just that. However, when she brought some members of her faith community to visit women in a California prison, she soon discovered that sometimes living the heart of the Scriptures means going a step beyond the words.
While visiting the inmates, she learned that the women appreciated the gesture but wondered why they should want to be visited by strangers when they never saw their own children. As Sr. Suzanne inquired further, she found that each of the women she was visiting had not seen their children in between four and nine years. Later that year, moved to action by her experience, Sr. Suzanne organized her first bus, which went to Valley State Prison for Women and included nine families and seventeen children.
“I love the organization,” says Maria Palmer. “It’s time consuming, it’s stressful and I don’t get much sleep. But the amount that it feeds you – it’s all worth it.”
“This year,” Maria recounts, “we had seventy buses, seven prisons, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and we had a little over 1,100 children on our buses.” And those are just the minors. Including adult sons and daughters of inmates, Maria estimates about 1,300 were involved. Between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, 595 inmates got to see their children–many for the first time in years. Among those, one family stood out.
Normally, an application to the program is about one page. “This application,” Maria says, “was like a college admissions packet.” It told the story of Gregory, a California inmate who had a thirty-year-old daughter named Jenisse, whom he had never met and had been searching for since she was a baby. In 2009, though, Gregory’s brother had found her on Facebook. She had also been searching for her father. The two had been exchanging letters since October, 2009, and Gregory wanted their first meeting to be through Get On The Bus.
So, on June 19 of this year, Father’s Day, as hundreds of children were reunited with their incarcerated parents, Gregory and Jenisse met for the first time in thirty years. “It was like looking at two people who had just fallen in love,” Maria recalls, “He could not stop hugging her and she could not stop smiling.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Gregory wrote in a letter to the organization, “That does not begin to convey our gratitude and appreciation for the Get On The Bus program.” He continues, undoubtedly expressing the feelings of so many families who have been reunited by the program, “The blanket of kindness, hospitality and security you provided not only helped make our visit possible, but much more memorable. May everyone’s generosity and sacrifices be rewarded beyond the many lives they have enriched. God bless you all abundantly.”
Though she is stepping down as the program’s director because she is moving back to the East Coast, Maria will remain involved with the organization on a full time basis because she is indeed blessed by her work with Get On The Bus. “I don’t like just sitting in the pews,” she says, “I like to be out there doing the good work and helping the people that need help. That’s how I see my own faith emerging.”
If you’d like to help Get On The Bus, there are plenty of opportunities. The organization works year-round to organize its bus trips and needs volunteers to help run buses, provide teddy bears and other supplies, and contribute financial donations of any size. You can find out more information by visiting their website at crjw.us/programs/get-on-the-bus/ or through Maria’s blog, runningtogetonthebus.blogspot.com.