One of our LASVP staff members recently took a trip with Get on the Bus. Find out what Jessica had to say about volunteering with the Fast Pitch winning organization.
About half-way through my day of volunteering with 2011 Fast Pitch-winning organization Get on the Bus, it hit me—this is the hardest I’ve worked in years. Don’t get me wrong, we work pretty hard at LASVP, but sitting at a desk in an air-conditioned office hardly compares to a 19-hour day spent corralling a bus-load of excited kids to and from the women’s prisons in Chowchilla.
Get on the Bus meets a need that never even occurred to me until I heard about it from Executive Director Karen van de Laat. (You can hear her yourself in her 3-minute fast pitch.) Most prisons are hundreds of miles away from many of the inmates’ families. The children, who have been separated from their mothers through no fault of their own, do not have the means to visit them. That’s where Get on the Bus steps in. On the Friday before Mother’s Day, over 30 busses set out for different prisons with hundreds of kids and their guardians in tow. I volunteered on a double-decker bus bound for Central California Women’s Facility—a bus that LASVP helped fund with the $5,000 grant Karen earned for Get on the Bus in last year’s Social Innovation Fast Pitch program.
In the grand scheme of things $5,000 sounds like a small amount, but those funds helped provide an experience that was truly priceless. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be separated from your child—but the looks in those women’s eyes gave me some idea of how wonderful it feels to see them for the first time in months, or in some cases, years. Get on the Bus also provides an atmosphere of normalcy that makes the visit a great memory for mothers and children alike. While the kids sat on the grass outside with their moms and ate pizza and ice cream, it was easy to forget that we were behind prison gates. For a few hours, they were just like any other family enjoying lunch in the sunshine. They played tag, sang silly little songs, mothers braided their daughters’ hair–simple things that on that afternoon meant so much. When the afternoon was over and it was time to say goodbye, there were many tears from both mothers and children. But there was also a sense of hope–this wasn’t goodbye forever. While the long separation would be incredibly difficult to endure, there was the promise of reuniting–either inside the prison next Mother’s Day or, if it came sooner, when the women were released to be with their families again. This is where Get on the Bus helps in the long-term: as I learned from Karen, inmates who have visits with their children are less likely to reoffend.
The women and children I met on my trip left an indelible impression on me. They were endlessly patient. Taking kids on a road trip can be trying under the best of circumstances, but despite the additional emotional stress of the day, the kids didn’t whine or cry or throw tantrums. They were unbelievably sweet and polite. One 5 year old girl said to me, unprompted by an adult, “Thank you for giving me a blanket. That was very kind of you.”
As with any volunteer-run event, there were a few glitches and delays—at one point I saw a toddler running around in an adult-sized Get on the Bus t-shirt that fit him like a full-length gown—but the kid’s guardians never got impatient or upset with our blunders. On the contrary, they offered helping hands throughout the trip. And even in the midst of the exhaustion of the long day and the sadness of saying goodbye to their loved ones, every single guardian took a moment that day to tell me thank you. I was absolutely humbled by the strength and kindness that they displayed.
In the end, these families made my long day of hard work with Get on the Bus absolutely worthwhile. The old cliché of volunteerism holds true—you get more than you give. I walked away physically exhausted but with a renewed dedication to doing all I can to make life more livable for my neighbors. Lucky for me, I have a job that allows me to do just that.
-Jessica Place, Program & Communications Associate, LASVP
Thank you, SVP, for helping to make this trip possible for all of the kids and grown-ups on Bus F to Chowchilla. To see more photos from the Mother’s Day trip, check out this article from the National Post, or go to www.getonthebus.us. On their website, you can also learn about getting involved as a sponsor or volunteer.