By Ron Tijerina, Executive Director, The RIDGE Project
Who would our children be if we had been the fathers we should have been?
I recently came across a photograph of my oldest son at the age of six. I had been incarcerated for two years when the picture was taken. Looking into the picture of him – seeing him sitting on a porch ledge with his hair all slicked back, his head held high, dressed in his Sunday best with a bright smile – I suddenly felt the pain he must have lived through. I imagined the emptiness of coming to see his father behind the gates, as the weeks turned into months and the months into years. I realized that it was my actions that robbed him of his innocent joy and replaced it with anger, hurt and bitterness.
Having to watch my son from behind the prison bars was bittersweet, as he had to grow up and struggle to overcome all the obstacles my choices had set before him, and as he grew into a wonderful young man full of promise, compassion and integrity. As I did my best to be the father he needed from behind the walls, I could only dream of really being the dad he needed as he crossed that ever so important bridge from boyhood to manhood.
Holding that photograph in my hand, I looked down into the eyes of the little boy I had let down. I was almost choked by the grief and guilt of not being there for him when he must have needed me most. I wondered if we, as incarcerated fathers, ever really know the fullness of the impact we are having on our children.
As I look into the eyes of the man he has become, I still see the scars of the pain he endured through those difficult years. But, more importantly, I see the powerful, gentle man he has become. I cheered across the distance as I saw him grow into the resilient man of character that has become his foundation and allowed him to successfully jump over life’s hurdles. Most astounding to me is that he tells me that he heard me cheering, felt my love and presence across the distance!
I am so thankful I did do what I could do to be the father he needed for those 15 years I spent in prison.
One in 28 children in the US have an incarcerated parent — that number jumps to 1 in 9 African American children. What are we doing to help the incarcerated fathers and mothers make a difference in the lives of their children?
A day should never go by, nor should distance be a factor, where children cannot hear or feel their parents cheering for them. It is time to create the catalyst of change to strengthen these fragile families.
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