The men, some of whom never knew their fathers, learned the value of a father’s approval and affection, according to Sammy Nelson, facilitator of The Parent Project at the Lake Butler facility.
“I tell the men—whether they had a father or not—‘Our Father in Heaven is ready to embrace you now,’” said Nelson, during the training session in July.
He often reminds the men of Jesus’ baptism and God the Father’s words of encouragement to Jesus: “Thou art my Beloved Son; in Thee I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
The class participants, most preparing for release at the time, had already reported progress with their children on visitation days at the prison. It is the only time for practical exercises that go along with the group sessions.
Previous visits may not have included affection or “I love you,” but the men were learning how vital these expressions are to their children.
“Now they leave them love notes and are patting them on the back. These grown men tell me about this with tears in their eyes,” Nelson said.
Some class participants have written notes to Nelson describing how the instruction has helped, for example:
►“I really enjoyed this class and I think that this class will be a big help to me with my kids. Also, I will be able to help others out also.”
►“I think this class is an A+ class. I like that it’s Christian-based and Sam Nelson does a very great job teaching it.”
►“I think this class is essential towards making me move forward as a father and leader and leaving my criminal life behind.”
►“Very much enjoy this class as a father of six children (four girls and two boys) I can see where this will help us. Thank God for this course.”
The classes began July 14 in the Work Release Program Building Chapel. It was Nelson’s first time to lead the Parent Project behind bars. Originally designed to be 10 once-a week, three-hour sessions, the Lake Butler sessions are limited to one hour and 45 minutes. Nelson said he condenses the hands-on exercises in group sessions to save time.
A few other changes are necessary because of the setting and the participants. Class members are discouraged from sharing confidential information about themselves or their families, since they do not necessarily trust their classmates. The assigned home exercises are impossible, so role-play in class must suffice. Nelson also asks that the prisoners practice kindness among their fellow inmates.
Also, some subjects in the curriculum are dangerous to discuss in prison.
“When we get to the part about identifying signs of gang activity, I have to be very careful. If you come down on their gang, you might jeopardize yourself and your family,” he said.
The Parent Project is a secular parent-training program designed for parents of strong-willed or out-of-control teenagers, but it is also suitable for parents of compliant children seeking a stronger relationship with their children, according to promotional materials. The program is used by schools, police departments, mental health agencies and churches across the country.
“The secular nature [of The Parent Project] is ironically an asset to church-related organizations such as ours because it is acceptable to secular organizations in which a religious curriculum would be unacceptable,” Santa Fe River Baptist Association Director of Missions Wayne Harvey said. “Sammy is such an evangelistic person, however, that he makes the program Christian-based, backing up his teaching with Scripture when the situation allows, as he is surely doing at the prison.”
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