Posted: Sep 15, 2012 2:02 PM
Updated: Sep 15, 2012 2:02 PM
WACO, Texas (AP) Every weekend, volunteers at Central Texas Hospitality House in Gatesville see how crimes committed by one person can strain an entire family.
As people come to the small Coryell County town to take advantage of visiting hours at the six prison units there, the house serves as a welcoming outpost for inmates' loved ones. Most are drained, both in spirit and in cash.
Volunteers do what they can to help giving them snacks, providing clothes that meet the prison dress code or just listening without judgment.
But one thing volunteers haven't been able to offer is a place for visitors to stay overnight. As a result, countless people who can't afford a hotel room sleep in their cars in store parking lots or camp out at parks.
Cases of aging grandparents traveling with young children are particularly heart-wrenching, they said.
A fundraising campaign launched by the house last week aims to fill that gap.
The group hopes to raise $850,000 to build a new center with 19 private bedrooms and other facilities needed to host visitors overnight.
"We have people coming from all over the state, all over the nation," said Charles Wise, director of development for the house. "Most have the same core values as us. But they're thrown into an unempowered situation because of (a loved one's) stupid choices or criminal activity. They are victims, too."
More than 8,200 inmates are housed in Gatesville, including women on death row. They receive about 80,000 visitors per year, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Those statistics alone show the need for a ministry like the hospitality house, Wise said.
But its vision also is to serve people visiting prisons in nearby areas namely Marlin, Burnet and San Saba.
The group knows the capital campaign will be a challenge, especially since some people bristle at the idea of even indirectly helping prisoners. But part of the strategy is to emphasize to churches the most likely contributors that the house's services are in line with biblical teachings, Wise said.
Verses from Matthew Chapter 25 serve as a motto for the group.
"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in," the passage reads. "I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. . . . The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
The group also is motivated by growing research that shows the positive ripple effects of prison visitation.
Not only are inmates more likely to stay out of trouble after their release, but their children are less likely to be locked up later in life.
That's good for families and society as a whole, said Tim Randolph, who helped start the house about a decade ago with area Baptists and now serves as director of the Waco Regional Baptist Association.
"There's an economic reason why churches and families should really be invested in these families and the offenders themselves," Randolph said. "I think you can argue that every dollar invested (at the house) will be multiplied."
Wallace Nelson, a state-employed prison chaplain who oversees the region that includes Gatesville, agreed.
Prisons offer a variety of programs aimed at rehabilitation and restoration, including marriage seminars and family days.
But far too many families don't attend such events because they can't afford to, he said.
"We recognize the days of just locking them up and throwing away the key are gone," Nelson said. "We have to prepare people to be useful citizens. One of the things we have really recognized is that offenders who have relationships with family or friends in the free world are most likely to make it. Everybody needs a support system."
Right now, the house is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Volunteers from about a dozen Gatesville churches, plus various other Central Texans, sign up for shifts, chairman Bill Lewis said.
The house is filled with chairs and couches. The kitchen is stocked with snacks, and one of the bedrooms has been transformed into a children's play area.
Another bedroom serves as a clothes closet. Filled with pants and shirts sorted by gender and size, it comes to the rescue of visitors who arrive in town wearing clothes not compliant with prison dress code. People can't wear shorts into the lockups, for example.
During a typical weekend, 20 to 30 people visit the house, said the group's secretary, Mary Alice Wise, Charles Wise's wife.
Quite a few of the visitors are from Waco, Mary Alice Wise said.
Although Gatesville is only a 45-minute drive, people may need a place to wait before a visit, leave children or other family members during a visit or recharge after, she said.
Some visitors simply relish the chance to talk with others in a similar situation, Charles Wise said. They may be too ashamed to talk about a loved one's incarceration with people in their daily lives, he said.
"The family takes on a stigma almost like the prisoner, unfortunately," Charles Wise said. "It's hard for people to separate."
Plans for the new facility call for it to be 8,000 square feet with 19 private bedrooms. Each would be able to sleep up to four people.
The center also would have a large kitchen and dining area, indoor and outdoor children's areas and laundry facilities.
In addition, there would be an apartment for a caretaker who would live at the facility full time, as well as a room for a social work intern.
Debra McCammon, executive director of Hospitality House in Huntsville, urged people from across Central Texas to donate.
Because towns like Huntsville and Gatesville are so dominated by the prison system, it can be difficult to raise money for such charitable efforts there. People get burnt out on the topic, she said.
The Huntsville center opened 26 years ago and was the first hospitality house in the state to offer overnight lodging.
Its 16 rooms are perpetually full, with a waiting list of six to eight families each weekend, McCammon said.
She predicted the Gatesville center would be just as busy.
"We often don't think about these families affected (by incarceration), the children affected by it," McCammon said. "We kind of have blinders on. But 1 of every 5 families in Texas is touched by this."
Information from: Waco Tribune-Herald, http://www.wacotrib.com