In Santa Maria: A joyful work of ‘mercy and compassion’
They are the members of St. Joseph High School’s “Get on the Bus” club, which on June 1 marked its sixth year of participating in the program of the Center for Restorative Justice Works, which brings children from throughout the state of California to visit their fathers and mothers in prison. Since 2008, the Santa Maria school’s on-campus club has raised funds and contributed items so that children can experience the joy of seeing their incarcerated parents.
Many of the 195,000 children in California who have incarcerated parents in the California State Prison System, cannot afford to visit, call or even write their parent. Get on the Bus in San Luis Obispo County provides a visiting day at the California Men’s Colony, which includes transportation there and back, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and “stay in touch” bags that include stamps, stationery, two frames for pictures and pens and pencils.
St. Joseph’s Get on the Bus club members raise money for “stay in touch” items, provide 12- to 24-inch teddy bears for the children to cuddle on their ride home from the prison, write welcome notes for the children to read as they arrive at the prison, and organize a reception and prayer service for the children at a local church.
“This program is an important work of mercy and compassion and is meaningful for everyone involved,” said Elizabeth Gregory, St. Joseph campus minister, theology department chair, and Get on the Bus club moderator, “Our students love the contact with the children and they are able to see first-hand the impact this program provides.”
“I got involved with Get on the Bus because I have a wonderful relationship with my father,” said Isabella Camacho-Craft, a 17-year-old senior next fall. “The Lord has blessed me with this wonderful relationship and, as an act of thanks, I want other kids to experience having a father around — even if just for a few hours. As Christians we are called to give ourselves, our time, money and heart to those less fortunate, and this was one of the ways I felt called to give myself.”
Brigid Rigali, St. Joseph Class of 2015, said her experience with Get on the Bus was “better than I could have ever expected; it was 100 percent worth it. I did not expect to receive so much back from the experience. Seeing the smiles on the faces of the kids as they took pictures with the cameras we had provided for them in the care bags we packed, was a rewarding experience like no other.”
The Get on the Bus experience helped Rigali better appreciate the blessing of family. “I have grown up in a Catholic household with a mother and a father present throughout my whole life,” she said. “The kids I was blessed to interact with only had a mother or a father and sometimes neither as a role model.
“The Get on the Bus experience also assured my belief that children are precious in the eyes of God, and we are disciples of Christ. Like Jesus who welcomed the children to see him and listen to him, everyone at the event greeted the kids with wide open arms and hospitality that someone usually gives to their best friend.”
Sydney Ederer, 16, also a junior this fall, said she wanted to participate “because I wanted to help make a difference in the lives of the kids that day. Before the event, seeing pictures and videos of kids reuniting with their dads or even meeting them for the first time was eye-opening. This made me realize that there are people out there who suffer every day without a dad, and how hard that must be.”
Too many youth, she added, “take it for granted to be able to have the love and guidance of not only our mothers but our fathers. When you think about what it would be like without that guidance, you realize how strong these kids must be. It was amazing to see how happy they were, despite the fact that they would have to wait another year to see their dads.”
This experience reminded Ederer how important it is “to thank God every day for my many blessings. The smiles on all of the kids’ faces were like little messages from God, reminding me how lucky I am. It was also so obvious that God was among us all and especially among those kids on that very special day, watching over them and providing them with safety, guidance and love from Himself and their fathers.”
The St. Joseph students said they would recommend participation in the Get on the Bus club to their peers, especially after having greeted the families at a reception following their visits.
“You have to be there,” asserted Camacho-Craft, a parishioner at nearby St. Louis de Montfort Church. “Wives have been reunited with husbands, fathers with sons, and it is an emotional experience. For many, it is the only time they will see their father all year. This program changes lives; it helps heal old wounds; it allows forgiveness. Through God's grace we are allowed to do this.”