When Mommy’s In Prison On Christmas

Children of inmates meet Santa while visiting their moms, thanks to Star Light, Star Bright, part of the Catholic Diocese Prison Ministry PHOTO FROM HAWAII CATHOLIC HERALD

Children of inmates meet Santa while visiting their moms, thanks to Star Light, Star Bright, part of the Catholic Diocese Prison Ministry PHOTO FROM HAWAII CATHOLIC HERALD

When Mommy’s in prison, Christmas is one of the saddest days of the year.

Whatever you think about the women and how they got there, the children are innocent. They deserve Christmas. And for their mothers, getting to celebrate Christmas with their children can be a powerful incentive to do better.

Paulette Vernay is the coordinator for Star Light, Star Bright, part of the Catholic Diocese Prison Ministry. Her job — her passion — is to make Christmas brighter for children and mothers by giving them a day to celebrate together.

“The simple act of giving,” Vernay says, “is a part of the process of mending the damaged or stressed relationships between mothers, children and caregivers.”

Leiua Tauiliili is one of those caregivers. Her sister is in prison for drug-related crimes, and Tauiliili takes care of her two nephews. It’s a tough job, but her will is strong and her heart is large.

“I’m very blessed to be here for them,” she says.

But she knows the burden her nephews bear, and how hard it is for them to understand and accept their mother’s situation.

“It has been a challenge, especially with the 15-year-old. The 11-year-old will talk to me about it sometimes, but he understands where his mom is.

“The 15-year-old, he is sad — depressed, at times, that his mother is in the program. He really wants his mom to do better and be with them.”

Tauiliili always has been honest with the boys about their mother. And she says her sister, a meth addict, is working on being honest with herself about why she ended up in prison.

“My sister is saddened that she put herself in that position. I talk to her every day.”

Tauiliili says the Star Light, Star Bright Christmas program has been a powerful motivator to her sister to do better.

And that’s exactly what Vernay wants — it’s why she works so hard and why her volunteers are so dedicated.

The program started out small, Vernay says. “It was a little rinky dink program back in 2000. We did it so quickly.”

That year, they solicited gifts for about 15 to 20 children of incarcerated mothers. Later, they realized they wanted to do more.

They decided to throw a Christmas party.

This year marks the fourth year that the Prison Ministry will host its Christmas party at the Women’s Correctional Center Hawaii in Kailua. It’ll connect moms with their children for “a day of togetherness, reconciliation, entertainment, games, food and, of course, visits from Santa with gifts for the children.” The caregivers will be treated to massages, hair-styling and mani/pedicures.

Last year, Vernay and her volunteers raised enough money to reunite 72 children from all islands, 46 mothers and 46 caregivers.

This year, the number of children has jumped to 159, with 88 caregivers and 77 mothers.

“The largest cost,” Vernay says, “is bringing in Neighbor Island kids for the day of the party.”

This year they need 93 airline reservations at a cost of $18,000.

Vernay says she has about $3,000 and must depend on donations for the rest. She knows it’s a lot to ask, but says it’s worth it for all involved. It makes the children happy, it gives respite to the caregivers and it motivates the mothers, whose participation is linked to their behavior in prison. They’re taken off the list if they get cited for misconduct. That is devastating for the kids, and the mothers know it.

Tauiliili says she sees the difference it makes to her nephews.

“They get very excited,” she says, when they see that letter from the prison. And as for her sister, “It gives her a boost and motivates her.”

Her sister needs all the encouragement she can get, Tauiliili says. She often gets depressed and discouraged, and Tauiliili tells her the important thing is to not lose hope.

“The ones who lose hope lose control and end up staying longer,” Tauiliili says.

Spending time with her sons, Tauiliili says, has been the source of her sister’s determination to turn things around. Seeing the damage she’s caused makes her willing to do what’s necessary to get out, and once out to work on staying out.

“The boys talk with her; they cry … they tell her they miss her. And she can see that they are hurt — and she’s tired of seeing that.”

This year, the Star Light, Star Bright Christmas party will be a beacon of hope for these families. But Vernay says they really need your help to make it happen.

“We’re all in this together, whether we think so or not,” Vernay says. “We’re all here holding hands. We all make mistakes. We all have to try to help each other.”

The party is scheduled for Dec. 13. There’s still time for you to help make it happen and to connect mothers and their children. For information on how to donate, go to catholichawaii.org/diocesan-offices/prison-ministry.

To volunteer for the program or if you’d like to talk to Vernay, email her at pvernay@rcchawaii.org.