Indiantown Returning Hearts Celebration aims to reunite fathers with their children
Sep 1, 2014
By CAROLYN NICHOLS
Florida Baptist Witness

Hugs were the order of the day at the Returning Hearts Celebration at Angola Prison in Louisiana. The first such event in Florida is planned Nov. 8 at Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown. Courtesy/Randy Huckabee
INDIANTOWN (FBW)—Dozens of men who are incarcerated at Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown are studying how to be better fathers. According to Awana’s Lifeline Program website, the men are “learning to live up to their biblical responsibilities as dads.” The culmination of their “Malachi Dads” studies will be a Returning Hearts Celebration Nov. 8 during which prisoners spend the day with their children.

Randy Huckabee, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dade City, is leading a group of volunteers to help with the Returning Hearts event. A group from Dade City will travel three hours southeast to serve as family assistants and to manage games and carnival rides. Huckabee is hoping volunteers from other churches will join the effort.
 
“It is an inspiration to be a part of, and churches or individuals can help. Registration for volunteers just opened, and it takes a while for background checks. Our only expense is travel and the cost of a T-shirt,” he said.
 
 Huckabee, the son of a police officer, said he has “always had a heart for law enforcement.” He became aware of the Awana Lifeline ministry to prisoners through First Baptist Church member Chris Williams, who serves as a board member of Awana. Long known as a program for children and youth, Awana developed Lifeline 10 years ago after Awana leaders visited Angola Prison in Louisiana.
 
Williams invited Huckabee to join him as a volunteer at a Returning Hearts event at the Louisiana prison known to be home to the state’s most violent offenders. Under the leadership of Warden Burl Cain, the 6,000 men incarcerated at Angola live in a changed environment, Huckabee said. An estimated 1,000 of the prisoners profess Christ.
 
“The prison has gone from the worst jail to the best. Warden Cain will not allow even profanity among the prisoners or the staff,” Huckabee said.
 
Students of the Malachi Dads curriculum, based on the promise in Malachi 4:6 of restoration of hearts of fathers to their children and hearts of children to their fathers, are rewarded with a day of fun and inspiration with their children. Huckabee served as a family assistant during the July 21 Returning Hearts Celebration at Angola that reunited about 400 men with their children. 
 
Huckabee was assigned a father and son for the day. He accompanied the 16-year-old into the prison’s outdoor arena where the son was reunited with his father, who has been at Angola for 13 years.
 
“The father became a Christian in prison and has been through the discipleship program offered by NOBTS [New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary]. He’s a pastor of one of the six or seven churches in the prison,” Huckabee said.
 
He said all the fathers waited on the bleachers until their names were announced, and they “came bouncing out of the stands” to meet their children.
 
“I did not feel like I was inside a prison. There were no uniforms so everyone could have a sense of identity. I never felt threatened there,” Huckabee said.
 
Carnival rides and games gave opportunities for interactive play among the fathers and children, and game winners received “Awana dollars” with which to purchase trinkets as keepsakes of the day. As the 2 p.m. closing neared, fathers drew their children close to “speak truth into their children’s lives,” Huckabee said.
 
Huckabee’s assigned father and son intentionally sat away from the crowd so the father could talk seriously with his son. At age 17, children are no longer eligible to participate in the Returning Hearts Celebration, so the father “preached” to his son for about half an hour.
 
In an Awana Lifeline video of the Returning Hearts Celebration, fathers say they pray to “break the generational curse” of incarceration by teaching their children that “God is real.” Children say the event is a “favorite day of the year” because they can “hang out with my dad.” Huckabee noticed the back of a prisoner’s T-shirt where his children had written: “When you get out, come home.”
 
Huckabee hopes such scenes will be replicated during the Nov. 8 event in Indiantown. It is the first Returning Hearts Celebration planned in Florida. Gov. Rick Scott “agreed to this event,” and organizers hope to expand the Malachi Dads and Returning Hearts Celebrations to prisons in Tampa and Starke, Huckabee said.
 
Scores of volunteers will be needed for the Nov. 8 event, and many more should the Awana program expand to other prisons.
 
“All a volunteer needs is a willingness to smile and to show love to these guys,” Huckabee said.
 

Learn more
 
For more information, or to register as a volunteer, go to www.awanalifeline.org.

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