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Wilsonville rotary event allows Coffee Creek inmates to spend a day with children

PMG PHOTO: COREY BUCHANAN - Voycetta White plays with her two daughters, Kylise and Kylea Trevino, during the Through a Child's Eyes event.

Jaxson Lorenzo, 5, started the day Saturday, July 13, with a familiar ritual: detaching a loop from a paper chain he used to count down the days until he had a whole day to play with his mother, Amy Lorenzo. It was the last paper link in the chain.

"He looks forward to this every year," Amy said. "He says 'We're going to go to the carnival.'"

Through a Child's Eyes, an event put on by the Rotary Club of Wilsonville, allows Coffee Creek's incarcerated women in good standing to spend an afternoon playing carnival games, eating hamburgers and cotton candy and reconnecting with their family who they've been separated from during their sentence.

Coffee Creek residents were thankful for the event and every chance to connect with their kids — or grandkids.

In previous years, while her fellow inmates enjoyed the TACE event, Julie Kellogg felt left out. Her kids were too old to be a part of the event, but she would have loved to spend time with her grandchildren Jackson and Wesley Bjork. This year, though, the event was open to grandmothers.

And after missing Wesley's birth and much of Jackson's life while in prison for the last three-and-a-half years, she was elated to play bottle toss and cornhole with Jackson and get to know them both.

"I have four daughters and am super excited to have grandsons," Kellogg said. "Boys are different. You can be rough and tumble with them."

Kellogg will be released in eight months and is looking forward to their relationship normalizing.

"Stupid mistakes get you in here, but being in here makes you never want to come back," Kellogg said. "I can't wait to eat cookies, watch movies (with them) and be the best grandmother I can be."

Amy said saying goodbye to Jaxson when he was a year old at the start of her prison sentence was "horrible" and she was petrified that Jaxson would eventually forget her entirely.

But that devastating outcome did not come to fruition.

In fact, Amy says their relationship remains strong even after over three years in prison because of events like TACE and, especially, the Family Preservation Project, where Amy spends time with Jaxson every few weeks, calls him on the phone regularly, talks to his teachers, and sets up swimming lessons.

"I'm able to be a parent from prison," Amy said.

Amy has still struggled to rekindle relationships with her two teenage children, who did not attend the event.

"That's slow coming," she said. "I have to steadily work on that and just be consistent."

But while Amy was addicted to drugs prior to her time in prison, she has displayed good conduct and learned how to make eyeglasses through another program at Coffee Creek.

"She's a totally different person," said her father, Fred Kitzmiller. "When she got in she didn't do anything wrong. Everyone did it to her. Now she takes responsibility."

Rather than play games, Vanessa Sherrod, her three kids and husband spent the first hour of the TACE event telling jokes, riddles and making each other laugh.

"Being able to spend four hours together is instrumental in building that connection," she said.

Through the FPP program, Sherrod also can keep up with the medical appointments of one of her daughters, a cancer survivor, and her children's sporting events and could even call in to parent teacher conferences. She doesn't know how she would have coped without those opportunities.

"What hurts me the most is, I can't imagine how it would have been here without that connecting and how it affects them not knowing what's going on with their family," Sherrod said of those incarcerated who are limited to standard visitations.

Research shows benefits of TACE

An academic study assessing the value of enhanced visitation shows the value of TACE.

In 2018, Portland State University School of Social Work student Sarah Lazzari interviewed Coffee Creek inmates and found that the incarcerated women viewed it as a bonding opportunity, an incentive to follow rules and, by watching other inmates interact with their children, helps both inmates and prison staffers see incarcerated mothers in a more positive light. It also found that the inmates were more comfortable at the TACE event than during regular visitations.

"The environment during EV (enhanced visitations) allows for physical contact between the incarcerated mothers and their children, and more relaxed interactions between correctional officers, incarcerated mothers, and their visitors," the study reads.

Though one of the strengths of TACE is that over 100 inmates participate, one limitation is that it's only once a year. And other bonding programs such as Early Head Start and FPP are limited to a select few inmates.

To make matters worse, the Oregon state Legislature did not fund the FPP during the recently completed legislative session.

"I'm not sure if that was an oversight or intentional. That seems to be a really worthwhile investment to help mothers stay close to their children as they are at the facility," said state Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville.

Another barrier to communicating with families, inmates said, is that making calls is expensive and their discretionary funds are limited. Coffee Creek Superintendent Paula Myers said cash is necessary to pay the collect call service provider and that communication is more readily available today than in the past due to the availability of email and video chat.

"We try to collaborate with businesses who keep costs down," Myers said.

Overall, Myers expressed an interest in finding more ways to unite mothers and their children.

"We are trying to find ways to increase contact with families because we know that is a component of a successful release," Myers said.

Organizers reflect on 17-year event

This year's Through a Child's Eyes event marked the final time Doris Wehler and John Ludlow, who helped establish the event in 2002, will serve as lead organizers.

Ludlow, for his part, came up with the idea for TACE while playing Santa Claus during a Christmas program at Coffee Creek.

After asking what a girl wanted for Christmas, her response touched him. "I want my mommy back home," Ludlow recalls her saying.

However, the initial version of the event Ludlow came up with involved caretakers and the children spending a day in Memorial Park, which Ludlow viewed as a potential respite for caregivers.

Former Coffee Creek Superintendent Joan Palmeteer, though, dreamed up a more ambitious idea: host the event inside the prison walls.

"The other one would have provided relief (to caregivers), but there would have been no impact (for the families)," Ludlow said.

Wehler said security guards initially were pessimistic about the event and, in the first year, organizers couldn't bring balloons.

But restrictions have loosened a bit. For example, this was the first year nail polish remover was allowed. And Wehler said the event has grown from just a few inmates the first year to 109 in 2019, along with 189 kids, 122 caregivers and 65 volunteers.

The event put on by the Rotary costs $12,000, says Wehler, and Ludlow's primary responsibility has been to raise money.

Currently, ORePac Building Products and the Joseph E. Weston Charitable Foundation are the primary donors. Wehler on the other hand, recruits and organizes the volunteers and orders the supplies. Also, NW Natural provides tents for free, and the Rotary buys inmates pizza and soda in exchange for help setting up and taking down the tents.

Ludlow said his favorite part of the event every year is watching parents and children reunite at the start and his least favorite is watching them say goodbye.

Ludlow said he wasn't sad that was his last year organizing the event because he knows it will continue without him.

"It's been a great run," he said. "And it's going to continue to make people smile, laugh and build relationships. That's a victory for me."

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