By Ambria Hammel, The Catholic Sun

Every outcast is a child of God because the Son of God was born as such, Pope Francis once reminded the faithful.

It is a message that concretely social justice-minded local Catholics are taking to heart. They are going to great lengths to ensure that women in one Valley prison are still honored under one of their longer-serving titles: that of “mom.”

This year, the effort brought 70 kids — 18 months to late teens — spread out across three luxury buses to Perryville Prison in Goodyear for a pre-Mother’s Day visit May 12. The children’s guardians, a handful of counselors from Catholic Charities Community Services, and select St. Patrick parishioners also rode along. Volunteers from the Scottsdale parish coordinated the fourth annual visit.

It started as a parish ministry, but became its own nonprofit: Get on the Bus AZ. The name distinguishes the outreach from its California origins. The Diocese of Sacramento reports that 40 buses carry children and their caregivers statewide to visit their moms in prison.

Get on the Bus AZ had five buses available for this year’s pilgrimage. Only three made the journey because each child’s visit requires three “yeses”: mom’s application, the warden, and the child’s guardian.

“We call each one of the inmates’ families to make sure they want to go in,” explained Mary Permoda, director of pastoral activities at St. Patrick. An in-home visit follows. The process helps everyone get to know each other and ensures that the prison visit is something the kids can handle.

Get on the Bus AZ provided a backpack filled with arts and crafts and a stuffed animal to pass the time en route. Even though the drive is only 45-90 minutes, “That’s a long time when you’re nervous,” Permoda noted.

That is also why Get on the Bus AZ brings Catholic Charities counselors. Children express an array of emotions. It was the counselors’ job to support and validate them, said Anna Smith, senior program manager at Catholic Charities. Even before she got on the bus, she praised the preparation work St. Patrick did reassuring and supporting the children and families.

“The hope for the visit is to give the families that special time to connect and to make positive long-lasting memories for all involved, which included the families and volunteers,” Smith said.

There was tangible fruit of that. Permoda recalled two children living with autism who made it through the stress and sensory overload of Get on the Bus AZ without a single incident, “Yet it’s difficult for them to get through the school day.”

At the same time, the women in San Carlos unit, 1,500 of them — including some from other units — had to get into lockdown for the visit. Permoda said it only took 15 seconds. “They were all anticipating us for Get on the Bus. And not all of them had children coming.”

Family unification

The kids came with smiles and hugs. Laughter quickly filled the visitation room. Normally noticeable distinctions like orange jumpsuits and bars all but disappeared.

The kids came with something else too: a freshly colored card. St. Patrick’s fourth and fifth-graders, known as Rock45, designed them with flowers and a message. The inmates’ children had ample space at the parish to personalize the cards.

Part of Get on the Bus AZ’s hospitality included crafts plus a warm breakfast before departing the parish. The Knights of Columbus, Mens’ Club, and mom’s group were among the helpers.

The three-hour visit included a pizza lunch with mom and time to talk. Some of the moms’ visitors included sibling groups.

On Mother’s Day, or any day, experts agree making the visit a reality is valuable. It’s always good when incarcerated parents can see their kids, said Kevin Starrs, diocesan director of prison ministry.

The Center For Restorative Justice Works in California expanded on the value. “Children who maintain contact with their incarcerated parent are less likely to drop out of school and experience healthier mental development,” the website said.

The continued connection positively impacts the parents too. One mom requested the visit as sort of a test run for what to expect upon release 25 days later. “I’m not sure my family loves me the way they did,” the mom told Permoda. That love status became clear early on in the visit.

“When her son saw her in the visitation room, he ran to her to give her a hug. A hug that only a mom and a child could understand,” Permoda said. That mom is now excited to go home and re-enter society.

Parishes supporting prisons

Volunteers at St. Patrick look forward to further helping with the reentry process and the prison is equally yoked.

“Nothing’s easy in prison ministry. There’s brokenness and woundedness,” Starrs said. The family members who remain on the outside often struggle emotionally, financially, and with mental health. It’s easy for prison life to become generational.

But when a parish steps forward and can run with an outreach like Get on the Bus AZ, it makes a difference, Starrs said. It’s something he wanted to do when a California man with seed money visited him years ago. By himself, he didn’t have the horsepower.

Now, not only has the effort grown 12-fold from six kids the first Mother’s Day visit, but a new bus “stop” will come online just in time for Father’s Day. One of Starrs’ prison ministry volunteers, a St. Francis Xavier parishioner, is organizing a small trip for kids to see their dad at Lewis Prison in Buckeye.

While these prisons are rather “local,” the Get on the Bus AZ trips are still vital. Inmates’ kids can live anywhere. Kids came from as far away as San Diego and Clifton, AZ — where St. Patrick’s pastor was baptized — for the Mother’s Day visit.

Even the kids who live locally often only get to see their mom or dad because of Get on the Bus AZ. The visitation is impractical or too overwhelming for the guardians to coordinate themselves. Get on the Bus AZ is the vehicle of change.

St. Francis Xavier will put its first rented bus into drive June 16, the same day dads at California’s San Quentin State Prison will visit with their kids. Get on the Bus’s California counterpart has two other prison visits scheduled for June.

“The hope is we can get other parishes interested to support this beautiful ministry,” Permoda said.