Almost home for Christmas: a gift of hope, vision and love

For 50 families in Las Vegas, this year’s celebration of Christmas was an unforgettable and life-changing experience, though its high point was simply sitting together in a living-room setting beneath the glow of a Christmas tree.  

Participants in this celebration included the spouses, children and caring friends of men and women in a transitional facility within the Nevada Department of Corrections who are completing the last two-year stage of incarceration before re-entering their communities and returning to their families. For some, this was the first personal interaction they have had with their children in more than a decade.

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Jon Ponder rallied his broad base of partners to provide a vision of the future that would inspire them to move successfully through the last mile of a long journey to reclaim their lives. Ponder is the founder and director of Hope for Prisoners, an innovative and remarkably effective re-entry program that is a model Woodson Center affiliate, which has reached and changed the lives of more than 2,000 incarcerated men and women with a recidivism rate of only 6 percent.

Now in its fourth year, Hope for Prisoners’ “Almost Home Christmas Celebration” was bigger and brighter than ever before, hosting 167 family members who were transported to the neighboring church, The Crossroad, where they discovered a complete home setting individually created for them — with sofa, loveseat, armchair and coffee table beside their own fully decorated Christmas tree. “We had all the bells and whistles, from decorations and gifts for the children to a Christmas dinner fit for a king with turkey, ham, soups and desserts created by a team of chefs,” Ponder said.

The celebration is a community-wide effort. For the past two months, local radio station SOS  conducted a campaign to elicit gifts and gift cards that were wrapped as presents for each family. Thoughtful preparation was made to ensure that each gift was truly special for its recipient. “We called each of the children’s caregivers and asked two questions: ‘What does the child need?’ and ‘What could little Johnny or Judy find in that box that would make them jump for joy?’” he said. Requests ranged from coats, hats and gloves to school supplies to toys, games and bicycles.

Two very special requests provide a glimpse into the vision and goals of the children of the men and women who will be returning home. One young man would be going to college but his grandmother could not afford the laptop he would need. A teenage girl had a long-held dream of becoming a violinist, but the cost of the instrument was beyond her families means. “We made sure that both of those dreams came true,” said Ponder.

But the gift-giving did not stop there. Ponder set his focus on those who had made quiet sacrifices in behalf of the children — in his words, “the grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles who put their lives on hold to raise the children.” Items donated for them included gift cards for Target and supermarkets, to ease the burden of providing food to special personal moments such as “a massage for grandma.”

Ponder sat down with each of the 50 men and women. “Many of them were brought to tears with the anticipation to be able to spend that quality time with the kids,” he said. “One young man went to prison when his girlfriend was pregnant and had never, for seven years, had the opportunity to hold his son. He did that for the first time when they met on that couch.”

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Among those who played a key role in the celebration were officers with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department who have served as mentors to participants in Hope for Prisoners, an 18-month program. They’ve shared a bond of trust and vision for the future, and helped present the gifts for the children.

The program has been working with men and women while they were in the transitional facility, providing them with leadership training and, more importantly, vocational training so they can hopefully secure employment and earn a sustainable wage that enables them to support their families, Ponder related.

“With this celebration, we created a family environment where they could take in the emotion of that moment and gain strength from that experience of being home with their families,” he said. “It gives us a chance to reach deep within the family to make sure that reunification is successful.” Reuniting these families and, for some, taking on the position of parent are among the challenges of re-entry that often go unaddressed. When necessary, the program makes available marriage counseling and family therapy. That’s because, as he noted, “When things are not right at home, then everything is in danger of falling apart.”  

Hope for Prisoners’ care and commitment continues even after successful re-entry, staying in touch with those who have transitioned. “We keep the entire family engaged and moving forward,” said Ponder. “And when the whole community comes together and wraps their arms around those children, providing that computer or that violin, we are impacting the next generation.”

In this way, the Almost Home Christmas celebration truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

Robert L. Woodson, Sr. is the president and founder of the Woodson Center. Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.