Kids get on bus

Church program takes children to see their incarcerated mothers.

May 13, 2010|By Megan O’Neil

Clutching colorful backpacks and sack lunches, the children climbed the steps and settled into their seats. Soon the bus was in motion, and sleepiness gave way to a steady stream of chatter.

The conversation, however, wasn’t about homework or friends. It alluded to missed holidays and sporadic phone calls. And the bus wasn’t headed to school, but to the Central California Women’s Facility, a state prison in Chowchilla.

“I’m a little nervous,” 18-year-old Leo Walhood said. “I feel like we are going to start crying. That is what happened last time. We started crying.”


Sitting in the next seat, 9-year-old Precious Borilla labored over the beginnings of a Mother’s Day card.

“I brought my tissues,” she piped in.

The siblings were among a group of children who traveled Friday from St. James Catholic Church in La Crescenta to the prison just outside Fresno to visit their incarcerated mothers.

The bus is sponsored annually by St. James, Holy Redeemer and St. Bede’s churches and is part of a statewide program called Get on the Bus.

“[The visit] is really a very simple and beautiful experience,” St. Bede’s parishioner and program volunteer Rebecca Devereaux said. “It is such a basic delight and one that a lot of people take for granted.”

There are 200,000 female inmates in California state prisons, 70% of whom are mothers, according to the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. For many, the Get on the Bus event, scheduled to coincide with Mother’s Day, is the only time they will see their families.

“[The program] is very important to me, being that this is the only time I get to see them,” said Maria Flores, who is serving a life sentence. “I have to watch them grow up like this — once a year, at different heights.”

Launched in 2000 by Sister Suzanne Jabro, Get on the Bus now facilitates such trips for hundreds of children across California.

The program was expanded several years ago to transport families to men’s prisons for Father’s Day in June.

“I have been shocked,” Jabro said of the program’s success. “I have done a lot of things but I have never seen something take off like [this]. People are hungry to give, and in giving you receive.”

The impact of the visit on both the mothers and children is powerful, said bus coordinator Margaret Sardo. It allows for reconciliation within families, some of which have been marred by addiction, violence and long separations.

“Can you imagine spending a whole year without your mom?” Sardo said. “It gives peace and closure and just a moment where everything feels normal and OK for these families.”

Pasadena resident Barbara Tillman traveled with four grandchildren and one great-grandchild to visit her daughter, Pamela Fulmer. The family anticipates the trip months in advance, Tillman said.

It is touching to watch her grandchildren interact with their mother, she said, and a relief to have the family together.

But it is also bittersweet, knowing that they will have to say goodbye, she said.

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