The Valdosta Daily Times
It’s not often someone can drive by a prison and see colorful inflatable bounce houses and overhear the laughter of children, but that was the case Saturday morning. Valdosta State Prison’s front yard was lined with entertainment for kids, a cotton candy machine and seating to accommodate a number of people. All of this was to the celebrate a select group of inmates who have set out to make a positive change in their lives.
Malachi Dads is a program allowing inmates who are fathers the opportunity to learn how to be better fathers as well as good influences even from behind bars. A program that originated in Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Malachi Dads was brought to Valdosta State Prison by Chaplain J.P. Miller and Partners for a Better World President Bill Newcomb. Together, they’ve given these men a dynamic year-long program that is no easy feat. The program does not accept all inmates, and if inmates show a lack of interest, break a rule or forget to do their homework, they are promptly removed to make way for men who are more devoted.
The Malachi Dads program results in the Returning Hearts Celebration, where these men are allowed to see their kids, many for the first time in years. For others, like inmate David Taylor, it allows them to see their children for the first time.
Valdosta State Prison staff also go out of their way to make sure the event occurs without incident. All visitors and volunteers for the event go through extensive security measures. Guards are present at all times during the event and a tower watches over the yard to ensure the safety of everyone involved.
Saturday’s Returning Hearts Celebration is the third to occur at Valdosta State Prison. 13 volunteers from all walks of life devoted their personal time to spend seven hours with these inmates and their families. Nine fathers lined up and had their names called one by one to be greeted by their children and grandchildren. As each name was called, the men would exit a doorway and be greeted by the smiling face of children.
A particularly touching story was that of Corey Gaither. Initially, he was led to believe he would not be seeing his almost four-month-old granddaughter whom he had never met. However, much to his surprise, when his name was called, he was greeted by his adult daughters and his infant granddaughter. Holding her during the few short hours of the event, he was able to replace the feeling of being a prisoner with the feeling of a proud grandfather. Gaither graduated with the first graduating class of Malachi Dads three years ago. He explained that this program helped him to better himself as a father. When asked about the feeling of seeing his granddaughter for the very first, he simply replied “It’s hard to even put into words.”
After all the children were reunited with their fathers and seated at tables, the graduates of the program lined up in preparation for their diplomas. Seven men walked out to music reminiscent to that of a school graduation and received their hard-earned certificates. The keynote speaker for the graduating class was Greg Gardiner, a man serving a life sentence. He spoke to the crowd about all the beneficial results of the program and how great his relationship with his young daughter is now while also reminding the men that they still have quite a journey ahead of them.
Later catching up with Gardiner and his daughter Desiree, 7, he explained that this event “means everything to him.” Although they have communicated through letters and phone calls, Saturday’s event marked only the second time Gardiner had ever seen his young daughter. While some may feel a daughter would be almost afraid of a father she barely knows, Desiree clings to her father lovingly and refused to let him leave her side during the event. “I forgot how much energy kids have,” Gardiner laughed as he tried to keep up with Desiree throughout the day.
A fellow inmate, John Breland, and his daughter Anita are always well-known at the event. A true “daddy’s girl,” Anita’s love for her father is always apparent as she screams “Daddy!” through the processing gates before entering the prison. During their reunion, she squealed and threw her arms around her father and his face lit up. Eight-year-old Anita had her bags packed at her Atlanta home for weeks prior to the event in anticipation. Breland explains that this program is so important to him because he doesn’t want Anita to follow in his footsteps. An extremely dedicated member of this program, he strives to be a better father and a godly man, as do all the participants in Malachi Dads.
Although the day’s events are pleasant and a lot of fun for everyone involved, there is a sadder side to the ceremony. The 31 fathers of the Malachi Dads program all sat hopefully waiting for their children to visit them, but only nine fathers had their children on hand. While these men can spend all the time in the world bettering themselves as fathers, it does not necessarily mean that their children are willing to give them a chance.
Another solemn portion of the event is the closing. After a day of fun, laughter, and games, a quiet falls over the yard as the inmates spend the last 15 minutes of the day enjoying family time. Once time is up, every inmate, child and volunteer is given a balloon to ceremoniously release in unison to mark the end of their day together. As fate would have it, three doves happened to fly over as the balloons were released, adding to the sentiment of the act. It’s easy to forget that these men are inmates as their tear-filled eyes watch their children pass back through the prison gates and into the free world.