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From Angola to Across the U.S. -- Awana Lifeline Ministry Expands Nationwide to 17 New Prisons

by Staff
June 17, 2010
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STREAMWOOD, Ill., (christiansunite.com) -- 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.

The fourth annual Returning Hearts Celebration(tm) reunited 574 children and teens with 247 incarcerated fathers for a day of fun activities and reconciliation May 1. The event helps inmate dads to restore relationships with sons or daughters they haven't connected with in years or rarely see. This is a crucial step in breaking the cycle of familial crime.

"Just being with my children overwhelmed me," inmate Daryl Waters said of his Returning Hearts experience. "As I looked into my daughter's eyes and encouraged her from God's Word, she began to weep uncontrollably. I could sense Jesus was in our midst."

Due to the success of Returning Hearts at Angola, Awana® Lifeline(tm) -- the prison ministry of Awana -- has expanded to 17 other prisons and jails across the U.S. and plans to add 11 more in the next three months. Awana Lifeline, working in conjunction with Prison Fellowship's Executive Director for Florida and Georgia, Raeanne Hance, hosted the first Returning Hearts Celebration at Pompano Transition Center in Florida on May 22.

The next Returning Hearts event takes place at Avoyelles Correctional Center in Cottonport, Louisiana, on June 26. The Los Angeles County Jail, collaborating with Grace Baptist Church in Santa Clarita, California, hosts its third Returning Hearts event on September 24.

'An unforgettable picture of God's grace and love'

The carnival-style celebration's main appeal is the day-long interaction between fathers and children. Inmates wait all year for this one day when they can simply be normal dads. They share Jesus' offer of forgiveness with their kids and ask their children for forgiveness of their own.

"I will never become bored watching inmate fathers reconcile with their children," said Awana President/CEO Jack Eggar. "Dad on bended knee asking for forgiveness is an unforgettable picture of God's grace and love at work."

Anne Rand, local volunteer and partnership developer for Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, served at Returning Hearts. She was deeply touched by the experience. Ms. Rand was one of 430 volunteers from 25 states and 151 churches. Eighteen of the volunteers at Returning Hearts were from Willow Creek.

"One dad, Irvin, was my hero for the day," Ms. Rand said. "There was a point in the service when the dads were encouraged to speak the words to their children that they wanted to say. For five minutes straight, he spoke words of encouragement, repentance and love to his daughter (16 years old). Both dad and daughter left the day arm in arm. It was very heart-warming."

'A million-dollar weekend'

Judge Robert Downing of the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal also volunteered at Returning Hearts. Because he believes in the power of Jesus Christ to change the hearts of inmates and their children, he has volunteered nearly every year since the event started.

"We've tried several generations of psychology and sociology, and nothing seems to work. I've tried doing educational programs, and you just get smarter criminals," Judge Downing said. "The reason is because it's not changing the person. The only way to change the person is to have a moral compass. And the only way I have seen it work is for someone to accept Jesus Christ and be willing to make a change."

Judge Downing believes Returning Hearts Celebration can be instrumental in turning inmates' children away from a life of crime. This can ultimately save states millions of dollars.

"It's $25,000 a year for someone to go to prison," Judge Downing said. "The average sentence is 10 years. That means we've saved the state of Louisiana $250,000 per person that gets turned away from a life of crime. So if you save four kids, that's a million-dollar weekend."

About Awana Lifeline prison ministry
Returning Hearts Celebration is part of the Awana Lifeline prison ministry. Awana Lifeline helps keep the children of inmates from following their fathers to prison by encouraging an ongoing connection with their incarcerated dads who have become Christians. Through restored relationships, fathers can speak into their children's lives and positively impact the choices they make. For every child that chooses not to commit a crime, there is one less victim of crime.

Besides Returning Hearts Celebration, Awana Lifeline also features Malachi Dads(tm), a yearlong program that trains and equips inmates to become better fathers and spiritual leaders to their children. This year, 119 men graduated from the program at Angola. Additional inmates participated in Malachi Dads at other prisons around the country.

Awana Lifeline provides an easily replicated model that churches can use to bring Returning Hearts Celebration or Malachi Dads to local prisons or jails. The Awana Lifeline Kit provides sample budget templates, press releases and prison considerations plus DVD segments, training outlines, volunteer forms and an e-tool resource CD. Available in mid-July, it can be pre-ordered at the Awana Store.

Reuniting fathers across America with their children Awana Lifeline's expansion has resulted in numerous inmates taking their role as father more seriously, impacting thousands of children's lives. "God intended the man to be the leader of the home," said Los Angeles County Jail Deputy David Bates. "If you get a man to realize his actual title as a father and what that means and he's incarcerated, it's an extraordinary process to see him turn around and reunite back with his family."

Deputy Bates has realized, like Judge Downing, that education alone is not the way to help inmates turn from a life of crime. "You can't teach guys how to work on a wall or fix a fence or plumbing or work in the kitchen and think it's going to rehabilitate them," Deputy Bates said. "For 150 years we've been incarcerating men, and we know it hasn't worked. The answer is to get into their hearts. To have him realize that he can develop a relationship with God and to ultimately put this into action."

'We've given these guys a purpose'

The National Fatherhood Initiative has been instrumental in providing some of the curriculum for Malachi Dads through its InsideOut Dad(tm) Christian program. Rev. Greg Austen, senior director of Corrections Programming, sees God's hand at work.

"It's kind of a wave that people need to catch right now," Rev. Austen said. "God has really touched it, and it's central to His heart. It's about the transformation of men. It's the whole Malachi Dads vision based on Chapter 4 of Malachi about returning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers. We've given these guys a purpose -- passing on a legacy to their family. That's needed across the country."

About Awana
Awana equips churches and parents to work together in developing children and youth who faithfully follow Jesus Christ. In 2010 Awana celebrates 60 years of ministry that today reaches 1.5 million kids in over 100 countries each week. Awana is the only organization with integrated, Bible-based programs for ages 2 to 18 that actively involve parents, churches and mentors.

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