'Get on the Bus' for Mother's Day

awileman@sierrastar.comMay 13, 2014 

Bus loads of children lined up outside the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) on Friday, May 9, for a Mother's Day event designed to give children of incarcerated parents a chance to visit their parents of which they would otherwise have limited contact.

More than 600 children and their caregivers participated in the 15th Annual Get on the Bus (GOTB) event aimed at maintaining and strengthening family bonds by developing a positive environment for children of inmates to reunite during what would otherwise be a difficult time of the year.

The CCWF prison is the largest female correctional facility in the United States, and houses the State of California's death row for women.

Many of the 3,000-plus inmates have children who live as far south as San Bernardino and as far north as Sacramento and most of these children lack the resources necessary to make the long trip to the Central Valley to visit their parents who are currently serving time prison.

A recent survey conducted by the organization showed that more than half the participants would otherwise be unable to make the trip to see their parents.

Funded solely on donations from faith-based organizations, schools, family foundations, grants and other organizations, the GOTB program offers free transportation to children and their guardians.

Along with transportation the GOTB provides travel bags for the children, comfort bags for the caregivers, meals for the day and photo opportunities for the inmates and their children.

On the way home each child receives a Teddy Bear with a letter written by his/her parent. The also offer post-event counseling.

Inmate Tyffani Castellanos, who is currently four months away from completing her 27-month court ordered sentence for drug related charges, says she is so grateful for the Get on the Bus event because it offers her a unique chance to see her two daughters, 15-year-old Nykole Castellanos and 4-year-old Nevaeh Castellanos.

Nykole, who has not seen her mother in nearly a year, said the event is special and has really helped their family maintain close ties to one another, despite not having the ability to see one another as often as they like.

"I think it's wonderful," Nykole said with tears in her eyes. "There are to many variables that make it difficult to make it here. It's a positive thing that gives them (inmates) something to look forward too."

Get on the Bus founder Sister Suzanne Jabro says she started the program as a way to bring children to their moms and help them identify with their parents.

"This program exists specifically for children," Jabro said. "They are the hidden victims who are suffering, especially in these stressful economic times, when families do not have the extra funds to visit."

Now, 15 years later, Jabro says the program is just as effective as it was on the first day.

"After 15 years, it is amazing how many of the children are meeting this father or mother for the first time," Jabro added. "How many of them, even if they're older, are looking at this dad or mom to see themselves reflected. Do they have the same color eyes or the same mannerisms? It's and identity issue — it's critical to their life as a person to know their parent."

Bart Fortner, correctional counselor at Central California Women's Facility, said as the program has grown other positive things have resulted from the event.

"The hope is that this type of event will help remind the child they have a loving mother and keep the mother/child relationship intact. The mother also gets a sense that she is not forgotten while completing her sentence, which greatly reduces the possibility of misbehavior by the mother. It also helps encourage the mother to keep an active role in the children's life by either calling or writing the child," Fortner said.

In addition to the Mother's Day events, the GOTB program has added two additional events taking place at the Folsom State Prison and California States Prison, Sacramento.

"California Correctional Women's Facility hosts the Get On The Bus event in an effort to maintain a family connection for the children with their mothers during the trying times while the mother is serving her sentence as directed by the courts," Fortner said. "In some instances the child is not normally able to visit their mother and this event provides the funds and resources to help with the family unification by providing transportation, supervision and food during the day."

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