Parents Helping Parents teamed up with the father’s group and visitation committee at MCI Norfolk Prison to host the Annual Family Movie & Game Night on June 27. This was the second time any event like this was ever hosted in the prison. A special thank you goes out to our Super Volunteer, Linda Perry, who facilitates a Parents Helping Parents support group at the prison.
The Father’s group collected funds from other inmates in the prison to purchase, games, movies, art & crafts supplies and a lot of food and goodies to enjoy with their families. This event provided the incarcerated dad’s a chance to spend some quality time with their children doing things that most people take for granted. Eating popcorn and watching the newest Spiderman movie with their children. Playing a game of battleship with their son. A dad and his daughter using the paint to create lasting memories on t-shirts with an imprint of their hands and vice versa. Having the ability to get their children an ice cream to enjoy on a hot summer night. Spoiling them with a little candy, chips, cookies and soda.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked through those prison doors with Linda on that hot summer evening as those large heavy doors closed behind us. As we made our way through one locking door to another, I got a sense of the world that these men lived in. As we made our way out to the visitation center, I looked in awe that the high cement walls with rolls and rolls of barbed wire, I knew I had been transported to a different world.
As we approached the visitor center we were met with so many bright but somewhat nervous smiles from the dad’s that were hosting the event. They needed this event to be amazing not only for their children and themselves but also for the prison staff who was very supportive getting this put together. Linda and I got in and feverishly worked with the dad’s on getting food purchased for the vending machines. We were cutting it very close as the families were supposed to arrive shortly and we wanted to make sure everything was perfect for their arrival.
We started feeding those cards into those vending machines like it was a race against time. Wilson, ordered “let’s get some of those big chocolate cookies…we need to have more Cheetos…kids like those. Swedish fish…yes… sour patch kids even better”. This back and forth went on for about twenty minutes and we worked as a team to make sure we were all ready to welcome the children and families into the center on time. What about the ice cream? Let’s wait until the movie is over and we can treat them to an ice cream one dad said. Sounds like a plan…However, we don’t have a lot of money on these vending cards so we can only allow them to have a1, b1, c1, d1. Those were the least expensive ice creams in the machine. Me being a dad myself I knew the kids were going to want the big-ticket items…. Chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches that were an extra 75cents.
We finally got all our items purchased; the tables were lined with all the goodies any child could ever dream of. Popcorn, candy, pizza, sandwiches, chips, soda, (they loved the orange Fanta). It was like the prison at MCI Norfolk visitor center had been transformed into a hybrid of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory and Chuck E Cheeses.
Just as we finished laying out the last bags of chips, I heard the door open and turned around. A little girl probably no more than 4 years old with pig tails yelled DADDY and proceeded to run across the floor and jump into her dad’s arms. Her dad received her like he had just caught the winning pass at the super bowl. The little’s girl smiled, and the dad’s smile lit up the room. This is another thing that a lot of people take from granted, giving and receiving a magical hug to our son or daughter. From that point on I knew I was in a special place and taking part of something that would create memories for all that were involved, including me.
I sat there speechless, like I was watching another wonder of the world. Watching these families eat popcorn watching a movie and laughing together. Didn’t feel like we were in Kansas any longer. I certainly did feel like I was in a prison and I had a sense that neither did that dad’s or their families. That was the point of all this. There are 8,760 hours in a year and this event provided these families and especially these children with 4 hours of quality time with their dad’s.
Once the movie was over, they proceed to play various board games with each other, there were therapy dogs there that are trained by the inmates. There were huge superhero cut outs designed by the dads and they had picture taking for mementos of this event.
There was basketball toss and some huge bowling pins with a bowling ball. The dad’s and the children played together just as you would see in a park on a warm summer day. There was an artist doing portraits and hand painting which I think the dad’s loved more than the kids. There was smiles from one end of the center to the other, the prison visitor had been filled with so much love, happiness and joy.
As time ticked away, the thought that was in the back of everyone’s mind was it was only 4 hours long, and they were all making the most of it. I enjoyed chasing the basketballs that didn’t hit the hoop. Some great unexpected exercise for me. I observed Linda chatting with a family as they played the game battleship together. In that moment I knew I was in the right place in the world. Parents helping Parent and that is what I came to realize in reflection of that moment.
However, the most fun I believe Linda and I had was getting the ice cream out of the vending machines. The children came up to our table and Linda and I had the machines to our back. They rifled off requests, Chocolate Éclair, the strawberry one, the green one. Then suddenly, I heard. I want the ice cream sandwich. In that moment I was pretty impressed with my own parenting skills to know, those were what those children would want. So, we did not disappoint, Linda and I were so happy to put smiles on their faces and blew the budget wide open. I have never purchased that many ice creams in a matter of an hour and in a prison to boot. Talk about never knowing where you are gong to end up in life. But on this day, I was exactly where I was supposed to be and so grateful to be part of an organization that help transform a prison into a fantasy world for a child.
So, The machine was taking a long time to push them out and I started telling the kids there was a little guy in there and was really working hard to create these magnificent frozen treats. I am pretty sure the older kids knew I was full of it but the younger kids looked puzzled, smiled and were very patient as the little guy worked his but off to deliver what they wanted.
As the event came to a close, everyone knew that time was near. Wilson gave a great speech and Linda and I were given the honor to provide the kids with prizes for winning the games. We were so happy to be a part of this amazing event where everybody won. Especially the dad’s as they lined up to go back to their cells. I paused for a moment and turned around to capture that moment as the dad’s in all their glory and smiles had their white t-shirts with very colorful handprints on them from their children with the words love as the common theme. That would have truly been a magical moment to capture on film. That wasn’t an option and I know my words will never do that image justice, but I am happy that I had an opportunity to share them to you in this article. While we were on our way-out Linda had asked one of the little girls what she thought of the event. She said I quote “This has been the best day of my life”. In that moment I realized that the event wasn’t about movies, food, and games. It was about love and showing these beautiful children how much they are loved by their dad’s and no number of doors, walls and barbed wire can ever keep that love locked up. Because love is exponential and always in abundance when we have the amazing opportunity to be blessed with having a child and being a parent.