SOUTH COUNTY — Cheers, claps and welcomes greeted buses as Get on the Bus participants drove into the parking lot of Greenfield’s Holy Trinity Church last Saturday, June 10.
Get on the Bus, a statewide program, reunites children with their incarcerated parents. Transportation is free for the children and their caregivers. Travel bags and meals are also provided.
Scheduled to arrive were 25 families, 82 participants in all, including bus drivers, bus coordinators and counselors. Not all families made it, however, as some fathers had already been transferred to other facilities. The buses had been on the road since 2 a.m. Prior to their arrival, the children and their caretakers had spent an early Father’s Day at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad.
For the more than 70 volunteers, of all ages and different ethnic backgrounds and religious denominations, the morning had begun with cheerful anticipation of the arrival of the guests: setting up tables and chairs, decorating the hall, getting gifts ready for the children and preparing food trays.
Many of the volunteers credited their participation to 10-year volunteer veteran Bronya Sigüenza, a Greenfield elementary teacher and Holy Trinity parishioner. She began as a volunteer when former Mayor Leonard Dart and his wife Arlette invited her to participate. Sigüenza is now lead coordinator, along with Ruth Santibañez who has been in charge of the kitchen.
“It’s about the kids,” Sigüenza said, a sentiment echoed by most of the volunteers.
Husband Sergio Sigüenza, a Greenfield Mary Chapa school staff member, said, “We all need love, especially the children. Hopefully seeing their children will motivate the fathers to maintain the family unity.”
Daughter Rebecca Sigüenza, a Soledad teacher, said, “It feels really good to be there for the kids when you know they had a rough day.”
For Jose Savala, Hartnell College student and Holy Trinity office staff member responsible for the youth volunteers, it is about helping others.
“Not everyone gets to see their families, so let’s be generous and help,” Savala said.
Blanca Osegeda, Holy Trinity parishioner and beautician, and Maria Elena Perez, mother and community volunteer, felt the calling to help.
“Jesus didn’t come to be served, but to serve others. We, too, need to serve,” Osegeda said.
Before the arrival of their guests, Sigüenza gathered the volunteers to explain how those assigned to sit with the families were to conduct themselves.
“It’s sacred; it’s private,” she repeated, referring to the time the families had spent with the incarcerated fathers.
No one was to ask or bring up the subject, unless the families wanted to.
“We are here to listen; that’s what is most important. Offer them food, something to drink, make them feel welcomed,” Sigüenza said.
Isabel Guerrero, a librarian at Greenfield’s Vista Verde Middle School and member of Soledad’s Liberty Chapel, understands how the families are likely to feel. Her husband, a former inmate in another state more than 20 years ago, now ministers to those in prison.
“He helps them know that there’s someone who cares,” Guerrero said.
Kimberly McClelland, who worked at the state prison before becoming a teacher at Greenfield’s Cesar Chavez, knows the challenges the inmates and the families face. She said, “I’ve seen how hard it is for the guys without their families. Some families sleep in their cars outside the prison waiting to see their loved ones.”
First-time Get on the Bus participant Rosaura, mother of two girls, 9-year old Gabriela and 3-year old Alyssa, said, “Everyone makes me feel like we are not alone.”
Adriene, mother of 16-year old Breejea, 9-year old Ta’niah and 6-year old Jeremiah, has participated in the program for three years. She was grateful that her family had a “way to get to the prison, the food, the gifts for the kids, and everybody” for what they did for her children. In the middle of the meal, little Jeremiah took to the microphone and said, “God is in everyone’s heart. Thank you everyone.”
Linda, grandmother to 10-year old Joseph and 9-year old Sertainty, has participated in the program for four years. She said that for her grandson Joseph the best part was seeing his dad. As for her, if it were not for Get on the Bus, she would not be able to afford to travel to see her son. She appreciated the two visits that Get on the Bus pays: Christmas and Father’s Day.
According to Father Enrique Herrera of Holy Trinity, Get on the Bus “helps break the cycle of crime and violence. Children who visit the prison do better in school. The program does not hide the cruel reality,” referring to the consequences of the fathers’ actions.
“It’s a hard lesson, but a good one,” Herrera said.