Camp allows inmates to connect with their children

Photo by Samantha Bengtson
A Salinas Valley State Prison inmate and his son dance during Camp Grace.

SOLEDAD — Incarcerated fathers joined their sons and daughters during Camp Grace, a weeklong camp that is in its second year at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad.

“We have three returning families and five new families,” said Place for Grace Program Director Sutina Green. “The five new families weren’t sure how everything was going to go, but the three returning families were ready for camp for the week.”

The first day of Camp Grace is used as an ice breaker for the different families to interact and get to know more about each other. By the end of the five days, both the children and the parents have spent a good amount of time together.

The camp is arts and music based, and that was realized on Monday when the fathers made drums and the youth made shakers that were decorated however they wanted.

“One family did a Disney theme, the bucket was a Stitch and the shaker was a Lilo doll,” Green said.

Each family works together beginning on Monday to create a mural project based on what a perfect day with their dad would be.

On Tuesday, the fathers and their children get in a “Soul Train” line with their drums and shakers and play their instruments while dancing. Wednesday is a day filled with competitive games. Outdoor plays take place on Thursday with baseball, and one of the youngest campers at 9 years old hit a grand slam to bring all the campers home.

On the final day of camp on Friday, each family presented their mural that they spent the whole week working on to the entire group.

“The week has been eye opening and a reminder of all the good times that I’ve had with my daughter prior to my incarceration,” said Donald Ortez-Lucero, an inmate at Salinas Valley State Prison. “It’s also re-softened my heart in a lot of ways that it had become hard in. It’s also showed me my daughter’s character, her strengths and just becoming a young woman.”

Mahliyah, Ortez-Lucero’s daughter, had a good week with her dad doing art, getting to hang out with him, playing games and just going outside and having fun. Their mural was going to Disneyland. This was the first time at camp for both of them.

One of the returning families was Rudolph “Rudy” Ellis and daughter Taniya. The two decided that Taniya’s graduation day from eighth grade would be the perfect day.

“I see my dad during visiting hours but to actually interact with him, paint murals, play football, is different,” said Taniya. “That’s why I really like this program because it gives him an opportunity and I get an opportunity as well.”

Through Camp Grace, youth get the chance to spend eight hours a day with their father and can interact in a different way then just talking over the phone or during visiting hours.

“Words can’t describe what this means to me,” Ellis said. “It’s always a beautiful thing to bond with your child, especially in this type of environment and having to deal with the circumstances.”

Ellis took the camp as an opportunity to be a parent and tell his daughter about life experiences and to show love. He also tried to emphasize taking the right path so that his daughter didn’t end up where he was.


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