MARYSVILLE, Ohio — Leah Howard stood on a stage in the middle of a prison recreation yard and told the hundreds of women sitting in the rain and staring up at her that this was their time — their time to learn how to be a better mom, their time to focus on their children like never before, their time to heal.
"There is hope in parenting behind bars," Howard told the women who are incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. "The best thing you can do right now is get yourself together because what your kids need is a mommy who's whole."
Spread out in front of her, the women seated in plastic chairs, at picnic tables and some even standing along the walls of the nearby buildings, used their sleeves as Kleenex and wiped their eyes with the collars of their shirts because the tears simply wouldn't stop flowing. Tears of sadness for the children they miss, and tears of joy for the second chance they've been given to be a good parent.
The Saturday morning gathering held in the prison's rec yard — under gloomy skies and intermittent rain — was "Angel Tree Parent Day" and was put on by the national nonprofit Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree ministry in coordination with Rock City Church out of Columbus. It was the first in-person event with outsiders at the prison since the COVID pandemic began in March 2020.
The women clearly enjoyed the visitors who brought with them a Christian message of hope and a pep-rally-style cast of speakers. Five members of 216 Stix, the Cleveland Cavaliers' drumline, kicked off the morning event with a performance that had the whole yard cheering and applauding.
But then things got serious as speakers took turns telling the women stories of how critical it is to stay connected with their children while they are incarcerated and how important it is to help their children connect to a church on the outside who can love and support them.
Message from Living Word Church: Tell your children that you love them
Howard, from Living Word Church in Vandalia, introduced herself to the women as former inmate A1735. A decade ago this month, she was in their place at the reformatory starting a four-year sentence for shooting her husband.
She cried as she spoke of her youngest daughter, who was just 7 when Howard went to prison, and how her son nearly lost his life in a truck crash while she was incarcerated.
She told the women that the Bible verse "you reap what you sow' will maybe never be more true for them than now.