If you imagine away the barbed-wire fence, it feels just like a family picnic on a sprawling green lawn underneath the late-morning sunshine. But for the parents and children in attendance, this is much more than a picnic; this is the day hope is restored.
On Aug. 16, nearly 30 boys and girls huddled around the entrance of Avery Mitchell Correctional Facility in the beautiful mountains of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to spend a day with someone they’d been missing lately: their incarcerated fathers. Some of these kids hadn’t seen their dads in several years; a few had never met their dads before. But, just the same, every child couldn’t wait to jump into their father’s arms on the prison’s front yard.
The Woman Behind It All
This day with dad was born out of a difficult journey for Forgiven Ministry founder Scottie Barnes. She grew up while her father, a known bootlegger in the Southeast, was incarcerated. He rotated in and out of jails and prisons, and then after one of his stints, he never returned home. Scottie, 6, realized she was a responsibility her father did not want, and she struggled with this stigma for the next 35 years.
Scottie searched for her father several times and prayed fervently that God would restore his heart. Finally, she located him in an Atlanta prison in 1966 when she was 20 years old. Scottie believes God began to work in her own heart, and forgiveness started to take place. At the age of 41, she finally heard her father say, “I love you” — something she had always longed for. Scottie’s prayers were answered when her father became a Christian before his death in prison.
God’s gift of reconciliation with her dad inspired Scottie to create an environment where reconciliation could happen for other children of prisoners, too. In 2000, Scottie began Forgiven Ministry, and its One Day With God camp — like the one in Spruce Pine — started a few years later.
Today, One Day With God camps have served over 10,000 prisoners’ children. Forgiven Ministry leads a camp nearly every Saturday in different prisons around the country.
“Many children with an incarcerated parent have never had words of affirmation spoken into their lives,” says Scottie. “That’s what our One Day with God camps do; they allow parents to speak a heartfelt blessing onto their kids, in the midst of a day of fun and meaningful activities like dancing with dad.”
One Day With God in Spruce Pine
The day of family bonding began on the Avery Mitchell lawn with a few high-energy relay races, and an intense game of dads-only tug-of-war had the kids chanting, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” Later, the campers enjoyed a magic show and a basketball show with tricks from Dribble for Destiny. Then they gathered under a big tent to savor a fried-chicken lunch catered by a local church — and birthday cake, since most of the kids and their dads don’t get to celebrate together on their birthdays. That afternoon, when the Gospel was presented, two dads knelt at the front of that same tent to accept Jesus into their lives.
The day continued with praise and worship, family photos, craft time, a scavenger hunt planned by the prison’s officers, a father-daughter dance, and a special time for dads to talk with their sons. The children received basketballs, school supplies, quilts sewn and donated by a group of prisoners, a photo of them with their dad, and Bibles — all on behalf of their fathers.
But while the kids got lots of gifts and did lots of fun activities, their favorite part still seemed to be, as 9-year-old Zaya simply states it, “spending the day with my dad.”
With his arms around Zaya and his 10-year-old son, Durant, incarcerated single parent Douglas says, “There aren’t words for a day like this.”
Douglas says this One Day With God camp and Prison Fellowship®‘s Angel Tree® program, which has provided gifts for his kids on his behalf several times, remind him that there are people who still love his children, despite the negativity prisoners’ children often encounter from others.
At Avery Mitchell, Douglas works as a chaplain’s assistant, and he sees the joy that Angel Tree brings his fellow prisoners.
“It gives them a little bit of hope,” he says. “The fact that [the Angel Tree volunteers] give the credit to the dad even though he is in prison speaks volumes.”
Douglas’ children are living with their grandmother, so Angel Tree is an especially important way for Zaya and Durant to feel the love of a parent at Christmastime.
“It gives my children the chance to see I still do care,” he says. “It’s that hand in between; it’s like someone hugging them for you.”
At the end of the day, Douglas and the other dads spent some quiet time with their children. They spread out across the front lawn to read a devotional together as families. Forgiven Ministry mentors were there to facilitate conversations of reconciliation and forgiveness — bringing the dads and children closer to each other, and to the Lord.
The Star of Victory Award
This One Day With God camp in Spruce Pine was especially memorable for Scottie; she received Prison Fellowship’s annual Angel Tree Star of Victory award in honor of how she has overcome the adversity of her father’s incarceration and invested in the lives of so many children with a parent in prison.
Prison Fellowship’s regional director Mary Engle presented Scottie with the award and thanked her for her willingness to follow God’s plan for her life. Scottie shared some encouragement with the children and dads in the audience, assuring them, “You don’t have to be ashamed. God can do big things for you.”
Scottie is proof of that.
WLOS featured the highlights of the event in the video below.