Returning Hearts Celebration, the Nation’s Largest Gathering of Inmates and Their Children Proves a Success
Streamwood, IL Spring 2009 –
Once considered America’s most violent prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola recently teamed up with Awana, a leading youth and children’s ministry, to host the nation’s largest gathering of inmates and their kids.
Returning Hearts Celebration reunited more than 540 children and teens with their incarcerated dads for a day of activities and bonding March 28 on the grounds of the Angola-based prison. The annual event provides fathers the opportunity to restore relationships with sons or daughters they haven’t connected with in years – a crucial step for breaking the cycle of familial crime. Studies report that children of an incarcerated parent are seven times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves. This year 440 inmates were involved in the gathering.
“Returning Hearts is a time when the walls come down between kids and their fathers,” Awana Lifeline Director Lyndon Azcuna said. “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.”
Julie Boge was one of nearly 565 volunteers from 29 states and 161 churches at Returning Hearts. Boge traveled nearly 1,000 miles from suburban Chicago to the event. She served at Returning Hearts as a chaperone for an inmate and his 8- and 9-year-old daughters.
“These two little girls couldn’t remember the last time they saw their father, and it was their first time at Returning Hearts,” Boge recalled. “They were so excited. To watch God reconnect these kids with their dad was a blessing.
“At the end of the day, both the little girls kissed their father on the cheek, and he told them he loved them. Volunteering at Returning Hearts was life changing for me. I can’t put into words how much it impacted my life.”
Returning Hearts Celebration is one component of the Awana Lifeline prison ministry. Awana Lifeline was founded in 2003 after Awana President/CEO Jack Eggar and Awana Co-Founder Art Rorheim visited the Angola prison upon the invitation of Warden Burl Cain. Through their visit, Eggar and Rorheim learned that Christian inmates at Angola desired a program for their children that would build a family legacy of hope in Jesus Christ.
Following the formation of Awana Lifeline, the first Returning Hearts Celebration reunited 240 children with their inmate fathers in 2004. Attendance has steadily grown in succeeding years.
The carnival-style event features games, food, pony rides, crafts and sports contests. Returning Hearts also offers special programs for care-givers who take their children to the event. Returning Heart’s main appeal is the day-long interaction between fathers and children. This free time enables them to heal and strengthen relationships and experience Christ’s heart for reconciliation.
Returning Hearts has made a profound impact on children’s daily lives. In a 2007 survey, nearly 70 percent of the care-givers who brought kids to the event said their children’s behavior had improved at home and at school in the months following Returning Hearts.
“These fathers do not want their children to end up in prison,” Eggar said. “So they are intentional in encouraging and teaching their children to pursue a life of character and faith.”
The success of Returning Hearts at Angola has spawned similar events at other prisons across the country. Awana is expanding its Lifeline ministry, which includes a mentoring and discipleship program for inmates, to seven other prisons. Among them is San Quentin State Prison in San Rafael, California.
Prison ministry is only one facet of the worldwide Awana ministry. Founded in 1950 in Chicago, Awana helps churches and parents raise spiritually strong children and youth through Bible-based programs for ages 2 to 18. In a given week, nearly 1.5 million young people participate in Awana in more than 100 countries.
Contact: David Bunker
Media Relations Manager