POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 11, 2010
Families who can't get together to celebrate Christmas often feel like they're missing out on the real gifts of the holidays, even after the presents are opened.
It's an especially poignant time for families such as Candace Yockman's. She and her four children had only 15 minutes last Saturday to celebrate Christmas with her husband, who is imprisoned in Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, via a video teleconference.
"We've missed two Christmases with him," said Yockman. "They say: I love you, Daddy! I miss you! ... He calls and talks with us over the phone every day. He gets bummed out that he can't spend Christmas with us," Yockman said, adding that her older kids realize their father is in prison and can't come home for a while.
The Prison Ministry team at Makiki Christian Church tries to ease the hardship by arranging for families to see and talk to inmates once a month via teleconferences, and giving them a bit of nurturing during the visit.
Yockman said, "Everybody here is like family."
She exchanges warm hugs and sincere Christmas greetings with everyone. "God bless you guys," Yockman tells them. "They're really good, they're really supportive and encouraging. They do a lot of things for the kids and cook food for us."
Volunteers at Makiki and other churches throughout Hawaii are part of the worldwide Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, which assists the state Department of Public Safety in arranging the teleconferences for more than 1,800 male prisoners in Arizona, according to Dennis Yokota, senior chaplain. On Oahu, Nuuanu Congregational Church, New Hope Christian Fellowship (Sand Island) and the First Assembly of God also host teleconferences, he said.
Another visitor, who gave her name as Autumn Frost, said she tries to keep her boyfriend up to date on what's happening with his family, and sometimes brings his two nieces to talk with him. Makiki volunteers are always "very welcoming. ... They don't discriminate," she said.
"They treat us like we're anyone else, not like our spouses are in jail. Other people look at the wives or girlfriends like -- why are you with a guy like that?"
On the first Saturday of every month, Paul Fereza sets up the camera for teleconferences with 16 prisoners, and makes sure their relatives get their full 15 minutes. Since he's been volunteering, he said he's seen the visitors really get to know each other and the church members.
Marian Ikeda, who co-founded the Makiki Christian Church's prison ministry in 1998, said the volunteers became particularly close to female inmates and their relatives in the past decade, when they were imprisoned in Oklahoma and eventually transferred to Kentucky; they were returned to Hawaii last year. Makiki has served only families of male inmates in Arizona since the beginning of the year, she said.
Ikeda said she has been blessed many times over and has learned much about the way people respond to kindness. The visitors to be "so respectful, so grateful and so gracious. They're caring and warm because they've had to go through so much, with so much less than other people," she said.
They always offer to bring snacks or give money to support the ministry. About two years ago a woman who had little to give insisted on donating $20, reminding Ikeda of the biblical story of the widow's mite -- a gift that comes from sacrifice, not out of abundance.
"That really woke me up, it jolted me," she said. "I have a totally different attitude ... and I became a better person. It's the blessing I get from the families."
Ikeda gets to talk to the inmates while waiting for visitors who are late, and they find it easy to open up to her.
"You know why? I'm old. I'm like their grandmother. They need a grandmother. That's what they need: the fuzziness. They are the rejects of society. And just because they're inmates, it doesn't mean their families are bad. ... The sad part is when visitors don't show up. Some of the women prisoners would cry," she said.
A retired kindergarten teacher, Ikeda said, "I act just like a teacher. ... I told a man, 'I'm looking into your eyes, and there's a good soul in there.' ... I know it's hard, but how can I tell them to be good in prison? So I say to them: Be strong."
Ministry volunteers have been known to dip into their own pockets to give someone a few dollars, and they always bring food and play with the kids, Ikeda said.
"Everybody has their special talents. Everyone has something small (to offer), but big. Susan Kamida brings spicy edamame and the taco ring; they really look forward to it. Ellen brings the doughnut holes they love, and her dog. Becky Ashizawa plays games with the kids. I make Spam musubi," she said.
For the past five years or so, Dennis and Susan Nakaishi have taken pictures of each family on Christmas and Mother's or Father's Day and made large, glossy prints relatives can send to the inmates.
Susan Nakaishi hung brightly wrapped candy on the Christmas tree that families pose next to for pictures, encouraging the kids to help themselves to the treats before leaving.
Last month the church timed its annual Festival of Thanksgiving to fall on a visitors day so the families could enjoy the food, games and a white elephant sale. Each member of the family received $5 coupons, and "they were so thrilled," Ikeda said.
Ellen Shikuma has been bringing Miki Miki, her little 14-year-old poodle, for three years so the children can play with her.
"I wanted to do something in memory of my grandmother, who taught women how to make bedroom slippers at the Oahu Prison as a craft. In the beginning I had a little trepidation, but really, families are families. I just think if families can stay together, that's important. ... They're lonesome."
When new visitors arrive, "I think some worry about being proselytized. We're not here to convert them. But then they open up after meeting other people in the same boat," Shikuma said.