Samuel in Colombia is no stranger to difficulty. At five years old, he faces physical challenges and developmental delays due to complications at birth that affected his brain. He is prone to frequent convulsions, has difficulty walking, and must still wear a diaper.
But that’s not all.
Samuel is also growing up without a father because his father is in prison. When the breadwinner of the family goes to prison, families are often left in dire situations and the mother or grandparents are left to work and care for her children alone. Children are often scarred emotionally from their parental separation and from the stigma and isolation they experience among their peers and communities because it is shameful to be associated with a prisoner. Despite their innumerable challenges, Samuel’s mother lovingly cares for him. Still, she struggles to give him everything he needs.
Samuel recently joined Prison Fellowship Colombia’s children of prisoner sponsorship program, which has provided additional support to help lift their burdens. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Colombia, health was an important part of PF Colombia’s children’s program, providing food, training caregivers on health and safety issues, and monitoring the mental and emotional health of children and caregivers. And PF Colombia provides specific training and support for children with special health needs, like Samuel.
Samuel’s mother says she is comforted by the spiritual and emotional support and strengthened by the material assistance. With it, she is able to provide Samuel the dignified life he deserves, and Samuel will grow up knowing he is loved by many.
Give Now to Provide Special Support for Children Like Samuel
Maria Jose bursts with joy at a gathering for children of prisoners in Colombia.
Maria Jose is nine years old. She is bright and outgoing, and her smile cheers a whole room. But she has a sad secret: four years ago her father Alfredo was sent to prison. He won’t be released until after she graduates high school. She misses him every day—so much she’s developed severe anxiety. Maria Jose looks forward to the few hours she gets to visit him each month. Today is that day.
She wakes up early, selects her best outfit, and pulls on her favorite knit cap to cover the bald spots on her head. Here’s a secret Maria Jose can’t hide: a year ago, she started losing her hair. The doctors call it Alopecia—they say it’s caused by chronic anxiety and severe stress.
The loss of Maria Jose’s father is unbearable. The loss of her hair is embarrassing. And the stares and whispers from children in her neighborhood make her want to disappear. In Colombia, it is especially shameful to be related to a prisoner. Basic things like food and medical care are scarce, because Maria Jose’s mother Consuelo can only work two days a week, as a housekeeper, for very little pay. Maria Jose worries about her mother, too, who has been so ill she was recently hospitalized.
“Taking care of our home and raising my daughter alone are so difficult without Alfredo around,” says Consuelo. “María Jose needs a father figure.”
Weak family relationships and lack of parental support, along with hopelessness and persistent separation anxiety are shared experiences among thousands of children of prisoners around the world. Heartbreakingly, these internalized struggles are also among the leading causes of adolescent suicide.
Thousands more children of prisoners throughout the world are in desperate need. They live in impoverished, unsafe conditions; lack food, clothes, medicine, and the chance to go to school. They need to know they are seen and loved. And through our caring network of supporters and God’s grace, thousands of children of prisoners in eight countries are receiving life-saving care and the opportunity to regain their hope and understand their value in the light of God’s love.
On her way to visit her father in prison, Maria Jose travels through a steep maze of hillside shacks to where Medellín’s mountains touch the valley floor. There stands Bellavista Prison. It’s scary to walk the overcrowded, cell-lined halls that house thousands of Colombia’s worst criminals. There are also thousands of prisoners, like María Jose’s father, who desperately need to hear about the hope and love only Jesus can bring. Our supporters are helping us bring justice and healing in response to crime by sharing the Gospel with prisoners.
After hours of waiting in a small holding room, Maria Jose is taken to the prison’s courtyard to see her father. A huge smile lights her face, as she practically leaps into his outstretched arms.
“It was worth it,” she later tells her caseworker.
Since her father has been in prison, Maria Jose has noticed a change in him. He talks about God now, and says he feels peace.
Alfredo participated in Prison Fellowship International’s in-prison evangelism and discipleship program, The Prisoner’s Journey®, which introduced him to Jesus in a personal way. Alfredo says his time in prison has given him the opportunity to search for God.
“I want to walk with God, so he can help me rebuild my life,” he says.
With our supporters help, we have now reached more than 217,000 prisoners, just like Alfredo, in 30 countries, with the message of the Gospel.
María Jose, Consuelo, and Alfredo are beautiful testimonies of how our supporters’ gifts impact an entire family. The practical help and care they receive is making a true difference for families who have so little, but are now experiencing hope and restoration in a broken and hurting world.
Now, María Jose receives food, medical care to manage her incurable Alopecia, and emotional counseling to help her heal from the trauma of her father’s incarceration. That emotional support is so vital to regaining her confidence.
María Jose also has the comfort of a Christian caseworker, who visits her regularly to ensure she lives in safety and has opportunities to interact with other children of prisoners, get plugged into a local church community, and stay connected with her father in prison. This helps to build her relationships, ease her anxiety, and feel accepted, supported, and loved. Consuelo says it gives her hope to know people are caring for her family.
“I know I am not alone in this.”
We are so grateful for the difference our caring network of supports are making in the lives of families like Maria Jose, Consuelo, and Alberto. Just imagine the eternal impact of that support.
Give Now to Support a Family in Need of Practical Care and God’s Hope
Prison Fellowship International (PFI) announced the commencement of a 40-month study to show the impact of a Bible-based program, The Prisoner’s Journey®, in prisons throughout Colombia, Nigeria, and South Africa.
There are more than 22,000 prisons worldwide, and more than 10 million incarcerated. Over the last 15 years, the worldwide prison population has grown almost 20 percent with the rate of repeat offenders soaring as high as 50 percent. Critics of contemporary criminal justice argue that by focusing exclusively on punitive justice, prisoners are not effectively rehabilitated and demonstrate greater difficulty reintegrating back into society and remaining outside the crime cycle upon release.
Prison Fellowship International developed The Prisoner’s Journey evangelism and discipleship program to address this issue by appealing to the internal transformation of prisoners as a rehabilitative method. First piloted in Nigeria and South Africa in 2014, it has spread to 30 countries, reaching nearly 400,000 prisoners, and is expected to reach 1 million prisoners by 2020.
“During the four years we’ve been running The Prisoner’s Journey we’ve found when a prisoner is transformed at a heart-level, his or her chances of thriving outside of prison dramatically increase,” says Prison Fellowship International Director of Prison Programming Rae Wood. “We receive regular reports from prison officials that prisoners are calmer and fewer fights breakout among inmates after they go through the program. This study will be a breakthrough for us in empirically demonstrating the program’s long-term impact on the individual, the prison culture, and the local community.”
The study will be led by Dr. Byron Johnson, a prominent expert on the scientific study of religion, faith-based rehabilitation programs, and criminal justice. In February, the research team will begin collecting baseline data to launch a comparative analysis of prisoner behavior and outcomes between prisons that implement The Prisoner’s Journey programs and those that do not. The study will also provide a prison cost-savings analysis of the program from reduced prison incidents, lower recidivism rates, and the prosocial benefits from family (re)engagement and improved employment for ex-prisoners. Johnson will publish his findings in relevant academic and peer-reviewed journals over the next three years.
About Dr. Byron Johnson:
Byron Johnson is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and founding director of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion. He is recognized as a leading authority on the scientific study of religion, the efficacy of faith-based organizations, offender treatment, and recidivism reduction. His recent book, The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation, uses survey analysis along with life-history interviews of inmates and staff to examine the impact of faith and the implications of religious programs for American correctional systems.
Valeryn from Itagüi, Colombia, just outside Medellín, stands in front of her home in one of the city’s shantytowns.
Nine-year-old Valeryn’s father has been in prison for more than half of her life. He has served 5 of his 17-year sentence in La Dorada, Calda, in Colombia—a prison largely reserved for members of political resistance.
Valeryn’s mother María is 45, and now the sole caretaker and provider of her five children. She is unemployed and receiving what little support her older daughter can offer, as well as any help from her neighborhood friends.
The family lives outside Medellín in the municipality of Itagüi. Medellín’s hillsides are lined with shantytowns—shacks piled high and cascading down into the Aburrá Valley mountain range. Their neighborhood, referred to as El hundido (The Sunken), is a foreshadowing of what’s to become of their home.
The hillside shantytowns surrounding Medellín, Colombia.
When Valeryn and her family were located by our Prison Fellowship Colombia staff, they were living in a dilapidated structure of scrap board and poorly secured wood paneling. Sheets draped over holes in the wall, exposed and tangled wires dangled from the ceiling, and corrugated sheet metal and tarps served as the roof. Their home was in danger of being taken out by a landslide, and their lives of being caught in the disaster. Support through our child sponsorship program helped move the family from their leaning shack. Their new apartment is vaulted with brick, and much safer.
In addition, the family’s health is at great risk. Their neighborhood is located in the “red zone,” where a hot bed of debilitating—even deadly—viruses are breaking out, including Zikka, Chikungunya, and Dengue. We’ve ensured Valeryn has all her required vaccinations, but even so, she’s still at risk. And María worries about Valeryn’s physical safety in the neighborhood as she grows older.
Every day is difficult for this family, but we’re helping to lift their burdens. The mere presence of our team in Valeryn’s life means María can work a little more, which is helping the whole family. Valeryn has been enrolled child sponsorship for a year now, and her family receives regular food supplements and enjoys recreational outings hosted by the program. These give Valeryn opportunities to learn about safety and health, as well as to connect with peers who understand what it’s like to have a parent in prison. This social connection and acceptance is so vital for Valeryn’s resilience.
Valeryn also receives counseling and emotional support. This is another crucial piece of care for children of prisoners, who are often ridiculed by peers and rejected by their extended families, as it’s taboo to have a parent in prison.
In 2016, Prison Fellowship Colombia conducted nearly 500 counseling sessions with children in the program. They also work to connect them with their parent in prison, as well as a local church. Nearly half of all families in the program in Colombia are leveraging support from a local church. And Valeryn and her family are gaining strength through the love and care of this new community.
Help a child like Valeryn experience love, acceptance, and hope.
Sponsor a Child
Learn more about our child sponsorship program.
God Looked for Me
Enoc is a former prisoner who attended The Prisoner’s Journey® evangelism and discipleship program.
During Enoc’s time in prison, he felt accused, stereotyped, abandoned, and harmful. But he said God looked for him, and He was always there. God reminded Enoc that He still has not changed the purpose for him.
Enoc says regardless of the difficult time, God makes miracles in prisons, and that he is one of those miracles.
Today, as a free man, Enoc serves as a volunteer through Prison Fellowship Colombia and a facilitator for The Prisoner’s Journey®.
Help other prisoners around the world hear about God’s salvation.
Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey®
She Has a Reason to Smile Now
Camila’s mother is in prison. While serving her sentence, she was introduced to the Prison Fellowship International’s child sponsorship program and immediately wanted to enroll her two daughters.
Camila is nine-years-old and lives with her father, sister, and grandmother. When she first started attending the activities hosted by the sponsorship program with her grandmother, she was very quiet and reserved—not very affectionate.
But as time passed, and she participated in more workshops and activities through the program, Camila became more interactive, loving, and showed great leadership characteristics.
Colombia is one of the world’s poorest countries; 20 percent of Colombian children do not receive basic education. But though support from the program, Camila not only attends school, she also receives psychological care to help her further succeed in her education and learning process.
Those who work closely with Camila have seen she has a beautiful heart for God.
Help a child, like Camila, change her identity from “child of a prisoner” to “loved by God.”
Give a Child of a Prisoner the Gift of Hope
Learn more about our child sponsorship program
God Changed His Life
Fredy participated in The Prisoner’s Journey evangelism and discipleship program, during his prison sentence. Before graduating the eight-week study on the Book of Mark, participants are asked to give their testimony in front other inmates—a challenging and intimidating experience for many. But the message of the Gospel presented through this program extends beyond the classroom walls in amazing ways.
Just as Fredy was called to present his testimony, his cellmate interrupted, saying he would give a testimony about Fredy. “God changed Fredy’s life,” he said.
He told the class Fredy’s change was evident, because he no longer participated in drug use, and refused to fight with the other prisoners. He was more resolved to try to be a good person.
At the time of the testimony, Fredy’s cellmate wasn’t a Christian, but had seen how much Fredy’s life changed because of God’s redemption. The volunteers of The Prisoner’s Journey invited Fredy’s cellmate to participate in the course, and he has since also become a Christian.
Help others around the world hear of Christ’s love and redemption.
Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey® program
“God Changed My Life”
Edison served a year in prison, and suffered extreme cruelty from fellow inmates. But the worst for him was not seeing his three-year-old daughter and having to tell her during every phone call that he wasn’t coming home yet. Edison participated in both The Prisoner’s Journey evangelism and discipleship program, which invited him to accept Jesus as his Savior. He also enrolled in the follow up restorative justice program, Sycamore Tree Project, where he learned to know God better and to forgive.
“I identified with Jesus as I was sentenced to prison being innocent. God used these to programs to change my life.”
Edison is grateful the Lord saved and forgave him. He has also learned to forgive as he learns more about God.
“As God forgave me, that is the least I can do, forgive and ask for forgiveness.”
Edison has been found innocent and released. He has a job and lives for the Lord, and shares his love for God with his daughter.
Help other prisoners hear of Christ’s forgiveness for the first time.
Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey® program
A Miraculous Joy to Serve Those in Prison
Yan’s parents are both pastors. He grew up in a Christian home and developed a deep love for God and His church.
Yan decided to devote his life to working for the Lord, desperately wanting to make a difference in his country, and especially for his small hometown in San José de Uré- Córdoba, Colombia. Yan prepared for this calling by studying theology and served in different places as a missionary. But it wasn’t until he started managing The Prisoner’s Journey® in-prison evangelism and discipleship program that the Lord showed him how he could serve his country and his hometown.
“It has been rewarding to see how God, every passing day, transforms lives and gives me more love for the incarcerated—either guilty or innocent.”
Yan has met several men and women from his hometown, who are serving sentences—people he grew up with, studied with, and even evangelized to.
“It was sad to see my fellow citizens crying behind bars, but it was also miraculous and joyful to see them transformed by the Lord and through The Prisoner’s Journey®,” says Yan.
Yan has ministered to many prisoners. Some refused to accept Christ, but after many years, and Yan’s continued prayers and faithful ministry to them, the inmates participated in The Prisoner’s Journey®, and experienced transformation from the inside out, accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Help prisoners learn about Christ’s love and redemption.
Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey®
“I Wanted to End My Life”
Outside the United States, 8.1 million prisoners live in a world many ignore. Locked away and vilified, they are one of the most overlooked and under reached groups in the world. Families stop visiting, and some cut off any form of meaningful connection. Isolation becomes the prisoner’s companion. Without love, without hope, without forgiveness or community, they serve their sentences and often return home unchanged. The cycle repeats, or some, like Wilson in Colombia, decide to give up entirely.
Wilson was tired of prison life. His family had abandoned him. He felt worthless and hopeless. Without a reason to fight, he decided to end his life.
“But there was something inside me that wouldn’t go out until I went to church,” says Wilson. Upon his transfer to Las Mercedes de Montería prison in Cartagena, Colombia, an inmate invited him to church, where The Prisoner’s Journey® Bible study was taking place. A blessing, as many prisoners serve their entire sentences without hearing about God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness.
“After this class, I will kill myself,” he told himself.
That night, Pastor Buelvas, The Prisoner’s Journey® course facilitator, felt the Lord tell her a student in the class wanted to commit suicide. Pastor Buelvas shared her impression with the class. At first, no one responded.
“I felt my body was burning,” says Wilson. Unable to ignore the Holy Spirit’s prodding, Wilson finally stood and admitted his dark secret to the room. Pastor Buelvas asked Wilson to open his heart to the Lord and began to pray for him.
“[Pastor Buelvas] told me God loved me and he would help me out of my situation. Then Jesus spoke to [me] and told me, ‘You are so valuable to me that I paid a high price for you through the death of my Son.”
That moment saved Wilson’s life. He felt a new sense of hope and a purpose to continue living. He dedicated his life to the Lord that night and, almost exactly one month later, publicly proclaimed his new faith through Christian baptism.
Wilson says he wants to continue his journey with Jesus; he is happy, and today he is devoted to sharing about what God did for him.
The Prisoner’s Journey® is making a huge impact in Colombia. In October 2015, Bellavista Prison in Medellin 129 prisoners said yes to learning more about Jesus. It was our largest graduating class since the program’s pilot launch in early 2014 in South Africa and Nigeria.
Help prisoners like Wilson experience God’s love and healing.
Learn more about The Prisoner’s Journey®