Lorraina Garcia knew that her eldest was different from the rest of her siblings; her daughter was a byproduct of what the imprisonment of a parent does to a child. 

Sage Garcia, 14, had witnessed her mother Lorraina in and out of jail and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. To this day, seeing a police officer instills panic in Sage, it signals to her that her parent may be going away again, despite her mother staying out of the system for years and telling her to not fear police, reminding her that it was her mistakes that brought bad interactions with officers. 

In many ways, Lorraina’s jail sentence was a shared experience for the two, who are now on the mend, even attending events that bring their family together after spending time apart throughout the years. 

They aren’t alone. 

According to a study by Cornell University, more than 113 million families in the United States have lived through the imprisonment of a family member. 

Earlier this month, one local nonprofit put a local face on that national statistic.

Saddleback Church partnered with Prison Fellowship’s event, “Angel Tree,” an organization that helps those who find themselves behind prison walls connect to family members on the other side. 

The goal is to offer a significant interaction that shows that despite the predicament they are in they are still worthy of a relationship with their family.  

Because families suffer too. 

Dealing with court dates, long lines, handling court fees, even stricter visitation restrictions because of covid, jail bonds, are just part of the stress that comes with being apart from a family member.

“We are rolling out the red carpet for these families, just because they have an incarcerated parent doesn’t mean they aren’t wanted,” says Danny Duchene, a pastor for prison ministry. 

The event gave jail prisoners a chance to invite their families or children living with the impacts of their sentence for a special holiday experience where the children received gifts and prayers from community and church leaders. 

The event was filled with joy, tears, and the obvious absence of the family member behind prison walls. 

Even though the reminders were everywhere,  the attendees found solace in prayer and support. 

Mothers did not shy away from how their kids couldn’t be kids, or grandmothers brought their grandchildren in hopes for a moment away from reality. 

Or fathers who had just come back home to reunite with their loved ones. 

Not one story was the same, but all had been connected by incarceration. 

Here are some of their stories: 

From left, mother and daughter Jenny Mejicanos- Garcia, 43, and Hazel Mejicanos-Garcia, 14, pose for a photograph after breakfast on Saturday, Dec.4, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Hazel has not seen her father in two years because of covid restrictions, putting a strain on their most valued form of communication.

“I miss seeing his smile. He’s always happy all the time,” says the 14-year old. 

Her mom, Jenny currently is raising seven children on her own in Anaheim, four still live at home. 

The obstacles that come with being a single mother while her husband is incarcerated have their share of growing pains, but together they are trying to do everything in their power to reunite. 

“He has three life sentences,” says Jenny as tears form in her eyes. 

 “Even if it’s hard, there’s always a way and something to help you. Just keep trying,” adds Hazel as she fidgets with her hands with her stare drawn down. 

Even though positivity is prevalent among the family, Jenny is open about the struggles the children go through. 

“I have seen incarceration affect my kids profoundly each in individual ways that range from hurting and the pain of being away and missing their dad, to a deep sadness, when seeing other kids with their fathers there at special moments in their lives that they yearn for, but can only wonder how having those experiences feel,” Jenny says. 

From top left, Mona Hernandez, Antoinette Hernandez, 52, Joseph Hernandez, 6, Adelina Hernandez, 4, during the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree on Dec. 4, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Both Antoinette and Mona are grandmothers who have helped raise their grandkids, Antoinette has adopted her grandkids while her long-term partner has been incarcerated in California City Correctional Facility for over 14 years.

Antoinette has stayed by his side all these years and empathizes with complexities of life behind bars.

“Why get your hopes up?” remarks Antoinette, whose partner is to be released in five years. 

Antoinette, who is also an outspoken advocate for rehabilitation among the incarcerated, accepts that many must pay for their mistakes.

But when they return home, they are often times a completely different person.

“The person that you wanted to come home so bad is now changed,” says Antoinette, “they have to readapt to the world, they can be so serious and hard to readjust.” 

From left, Lorraina Garcia, 30, Joseph Villegas, 2, Sage Ayala, 8, Cris, 36, Cristobal Villegas, 3 have breakfast at the Angel Tree event held in Anaheim on Dec. 4, 2021 Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Loraina brought her three kids to the enjoy a holiday event. She was accompanied by Cris, the father of the children, who himself spent seven years in Orange County Jail.

Lorraina, who at 14 was a chronic drug user was in and out of jail most of her life until now. She currently lives a life of rehabilitation with her husband and children.

Lorraina saw the impacts of incarceration on her family, “I was homeless and running around with my daughter, Sage, it affected her,” says Lorraine, who has not been back to jail since the birth of her two sons, “my daughter was around when I was in and out of jail, she didn’t get to grow up like a kid, she has PTSD, every time she sees a cop she thinks they are going to take me, or if I fall asleep she gets scared.”

Lorraina and her husband are working hard to move forward with their family every day. At times when either Lorraina or Cris get pulled over by a police officer a fear runs over the family. “Sage is scared of cops and doesn’t trust them, but we are teaching her that not all cops are bad, we just made some mistakes,” says Lorraina. Cris and Lorraina met in jail.  

Brothers Jeffrey Baez, 12, and Jimmy Baez, 6, during the Angel Tree event in Anaheim on Dec. 4, 2021. Both were invited along with their mother and father by their incarcerated uncle. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Jeffrey who has never met his uncle in person still supports him from afar. “I’m happy to know that people pray for my family.” Jeffrey’s uncle has been incarcerated for 20 years.

From left, Jeffrey Baez, 12, Alex Baez, Jimmy Baez, 6, Marilyn Mendoza pose for a photograph during the Tree Angel Event in Anaheim. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Mendoza was invited to attend the event by her incarcerated brother who has been away for 20 years. “We miss him a lot, I am sure he regrets and learned a lot of lessons, we will probably talk to him later and tell him we came,” says Mendoza.

Left, Kamila Vega, 6, and Jason Vega, 3, stand in the prayer line on Dec. 4, 2021 in Anaheim during the Angel Tree event. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC
Families lined up for the event filled with family activities, prayers, free breakfast, and gifts provided by the Prison Fellowship at Saddleback Church in Anaheim. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

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