Ministry reunites 1,000 kids with their prisoner dads

Once deemed the most violent prison in America, the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola hosted the nation’s largest gathering of children and their inmate fathers on Saturday, May 1. The Returning Hearts Celebration was expected to reunite more than 1,000 kids with their incarcerated dads for a special day of activities and bonding that promote reconciliation and healing within families.

A total of 540 children and 450 inmate dads participated in last year’s Returning Hearts Celebration at Angola.

This year’s event was a joint effort between the penitentiary and Awana, a Chicago-based international youth and children’s Life .

Returning Hearts uses a festive day of games, food, crafts and pony rides to begin transforming relationships between kids and dads. The celebration 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. Children of an incarcerated parent are much more likely than their peers to land in prison themselves.

“Returning Hearts is a time when the walls come down between kids and their fathers,” said Lyndon Azcuna, director of Awana® Lifeline™, the prison Life of Awana. “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.”

“These fathers do not want their children to end up in prison,” added Awana President/CEO Jack Eggar. “So they are intentional in encouraging and teaching their children to pursue a life of character and faith.”

Returning Hearts Celebration is part of the Awana Lifeline prison Life . Lifeline was founded in 2003 when Warden Burl Cain of Louisiana State Penitentiary, the largest maximum-security prison in the U.S., invited Jack Eggar and Awana Co-Founder Art Rorheim to speak to the prison’s fellowship of Christian inmates. Rorheim and Eggar were surprised to discover that the prisoners wanted a program established to help their children grow spiritually and morally.

Because of the expertise Awana has in working with children, parents and churches, Cain invited the Life to help meet this need. Soon, Awana Lifeline was founded.

Besides Returning Hearts Celebration, Awana Lifeline also features Malachi Dads™, which trains and equips inmates to become better fathers to their children by teaching them fathering skills and moral rehabilitation.

Awana Lifeline’s hope is that restored relationships between children and their fathers today will mean better choices for the children tomorrow. To that end, Lifeline and Returning Hearts are seeing heartening results.

Several months after the 2007 Returning Hearts Celebration, Awana surveyed the children’s guardians. Sixty-eight percent said their children’s behavior had improved at home and at school.

Because of Returning Hearts’ success at Angola, the program has now expanded to 24 prisons across the country.

In addition to programming, Awana is also responsible for coordinating hundreds of volunteers for Returning Hearts. Volunteers will assist with chaperoning, transportation, games, food service and other tasks. Last year, 565 Returning Hearts volunteers from 29 states participated.

Awana helps churches and parents work together to develop children and youth who faithfully follow Jesus Christ. In 2010, Awana rejoices over 60 years of partnerships with churches and parents that have produced a lasting biblical faith. Awana is the only organization with fully integrated, Bible-based programs for ages 2 to 18 that actively involve parents, church leaders and mentors.

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