By Layla Garms
Before Saturday, Stanley Reaves had not laid eyes on his nine year-old son Josiah since being incarcerated more than four years ago.
When the boy stepped into the gymnasium at Maple Springs United Methodist Church, Reaves, an inmate at Forsyth Correctional Center on Craft Drive, said he was at a loss for words.
“It was exhilarating,” he later confessed. “I was at a standstill for a moment.”
Missing so much of his son’s childhood because of his own mistakes has been difficult, said Reaves, who is serving a seven-year sentence on habitual felon charges.
The two were brought together through Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries’ Fun with the Father program. The half-day event included a slate of activities for inmates and their children, everything from games and arts and craft projects, to Josiah’s personal favorite: making paper airplanes.
The day offered the men a rare opportunity to spend time with their children off the prison grounds. The inmates earned the privilege by completing Courageous, a five-week program centered around their roles as Christian husbands, fathers and men. They also had to remain infraction free within the facility for the duration of the program. At the end of the last Courageous session last week, the inmates took a pledge to be Courageous men and uphold the values they’d honed during the program.
“(The program) changed my thinking. For a long time, my thinking was distorted and it made me miss what’s most important in my life, which is him and Sierra,” Reaves said, referring to Josiah and his 21 year-old daughter. “…That’s part of my rehabilitation. That’s part of restoring me to sanity. That’s what the Ministry does. It keeps clarity upstairs.”
Tim Key, a self employed lawn care and handy man and longtime FJPM volunteer, facilitated the weekly Courageous sessions at the minimum security correctional facility. Seeing the men reap the rewards of all their hard work during Fun with the Father was rewarding for him, said Key, who also leads the nine month-long Disciple Bible Study program at the prison.
“It’s kind of like the pot of gold (at the end of a rainbow),” he remarked. “After investing that time in the guys, I get to see the end result.”
Thomasville native Bruce Dunlap said his 10 year-old daughter Mykia comes to the prison almost every week to visit him. But visits within the facility have time limits and prohibit the inmates from hugging or holding their children except at the beginning and end of visits. Saturday’s event had no such restrictions. Dunlap took full advantage of the unrestricted quality time.
“This is real special. I am really enjoying it so far,” commented Dunlap, who is serving a five and a half year sentence for drug trafficking. “When we have our weekly visits, it’s only two hours, but this is a little longer and we get to bond a little more.”
Mykia, a self-described “daddy’s girl,” said she had looked forward to the day for some time. The best part?
“I get to spend time with my daddy and play games,” she said with a wide smile.
Forsyth Correctional Center Superintendent Benita Witherspoon said she found it refreshing to see the men outside the confines of prison.
“They probably have to be very manly in the facility, but here, you see the softer side,” she said. “I see them lifting weights, but here, they’re lifting children up. It’s pretty good to see them taking on that role.”
The Ministry launched Fun with the Father three years ago as a means of maintaing the fragile bonds of parenthood for the men who are serving time, explained Chaplain Tejado Hanchell, pastor of Mount Calvary Holy Church.
“I think the main thing is connecting the fathers and their kids. Incarceration does something to the individual, but in many respects, the entire family’s doing the time,” said the father of two. “…Eighty-five percent of men in prison came from a fatherless home. We want to break the cycle, and we believe one of the ways to break that cycle is to focus on fathers.”
Strengthening the familial bonds and support networks on the outside means the men who take part in the program are less likely to reoffend, explained the Nassau, Bahamas native.
For Reaves, an alumnus of Glenn High School, the event presented a long overdue opportunity to turn the page of his checkered history and look to the future with unprecedented clarity. “It’s a fresh start,” declared the 41 year-old. “That’s what it means to me.”
For more information about Forsyth Jail & Prison Ministries initiatives or to contribute to the organization, visit www.forsythjpm.org or call (336) 759-0063.