Story and photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Ten kids got the chance to spend quality time with their fathers recently in a very special day camp – Camp Grace, which brought kids to Calipatria State Prison (CAL) for an extended visit with their incarcerated dads.
The camp, now in its second year, is organized by Place4Grace, a nonprofit organization serving children and families of incarcerated men and women. At no cost to the families, children were able to spend the days with their fathers in CAL’s D-yard visiting area, and participated in fun evening activities in the Calipatria Community.
While at the prison, the children and their fathers participated in music and craft projects, with lots of group activities and plenty of time for one-on-one conversations.
“It’s art- and music-based for exactly that reason – the side-by-side work,” said Karen McDaniel, executive director of Place4Grace. “Because what happens when you’re working side by side together is, we’re not staring at each other across the table. We can begin to talk about things.”
McDaniel, whose background is as an educational psychologist, explained some children hadn’t seen their dads in years, while others visit regularly.
No matter the frequency of contact, having such a large period of time to spend together outside of normal institutional visiting hours results in better communication and stronger relationships.
“It was a good opportunity for us to bond,” said inmate Alfredo Franco, whose two sons came to visit him. “My kids are a little older, so the main thing with me and them was playing football and getting to run around and play a little bit of baseball, stuff like that.”
The inmates were thoroughly screened for the program and could not have any disciplinary issues or sentences involving sexual or domestic violence. They were selected via an institution application process, and then Place 4 Grace reached out to the families.
Camp Grace is modeled after Hope House in Washington, D.C., which reconnects children with their incarcerated fathers via numerous programs.
McDaniel trained at Federal Correctional Institution Cumberland, which hosts an annual day camp for children and fathers. Hope House founder Carol Fenley also traveled to California to train Place 4 Grace staff for camp.
In the weeks leading up to camp, the dads prepared for the special visit through workshops about parenting, camp rules and communication.
Correctional Officer Russell Weller was present for every minute of camp, and he said while at first the children were hesitant around him, they quickly realized he’s a nice guy. He participated in several camp events, and was always ready to answer questions with a smile. By the end of camp, the children told him they had given Camp Grace the unofficial nickname “Camp Weller.”
“It’s been a heartwarming week because I’ve seen nothing but happiness with the children,” said Weller, who is most often on duty during regular visiting.
Place 4 Grace is heavily involved in promoting positive family relationships. McDaniel organizes the annual holiday enhanced visiting program, in which children enjoy a Christmastime visit with their dads, and Father2Child Literacy Program in which fathers record audiobooks for their children to listen to at home.
Like other Place 4 Grace programs, the camp was offered to the children free of charge. Volunteers provided transportation for the children who needed it, and food and lodging were covered. McDaniel said the Calipatria community has been overwhelmingly supportive of Camp Grace, helping with activities, lodging and meals.
Inmate David Cossio was grateful for the week he spent with his two daughters. It had been a few years since they had seen each other, and they spent a lot of time just talking. They also participated in camp activities and created a colorful 3-D mural depicting what a perfect day would look like if Cossio were not incarcerated – for them, it was a carnival scene complete with cotton candy and a roller coaster.
“It’s just another confirmation that if I keep on doing what I’m doing, good things will come,” Cossio reflected. “Even when things are sometimes hard, I’m able to hang in there, and part of doing that is staying out of trouble, doing self-help programs.
Both Weller and McDaniel emphasized the enhanced visiting program is an incentive which inspired participants to be on their best behavior. In order to participate, the inmates had to be completely discipline-free for a full year.
“The benefit is obvious – to the kids and to the dads – but we also like to stress the benefits to the institution,” McDaniel said. “Because if the guys are discipline-free and have that motivation – and there’s no bigger motivation than their children – then that means the guards are safer, and the institution is running more smoothly. It really benefits everybody, and ultimately the community where the dads are going to be coming home.”
(Editor’s note: Some websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer.)
Learn more about Camp Grace at https://www.theplace4grace.org/