RON & CATHY TIJERINA
In September of 1991, I was twenty-four years old when I found myself trying to explain to my two and four year old sons why Daddy didn’t come home that day. “Prison” was a new word to define for my sons - a word that toddlers should not even know - yet here I was trying desperately to provide an explanation to them that would make sense without completely robbing them of their innocence. We were so sure that Ron was not going to be convicted of a crime he did not commit we had not even thought about telling our sons anything. Now, as I sat alone on the floor of our house, holding my sobbing, frightened children, I wondered how on earth our young family was going to make it through that night—let alone the next 14-25 years my husband was just sentenced.
Little did I know that the devastation I felt as I walked out of the court house alone that day was just the beginning of a journey of pain, shame, disappointment and social shunning that my husband’s incarceration had created for my children and me. My sons and I had joined the leagues of forgotten victims; the families of the incarcerated. I searched everywhere for help. I knew from the number of people who filled the prison visiting rooms that we were not alone in our plight, and yet I could not find a single support group or program offered to help families and children of the incarcerated. The fact that Ron had not committed the crime for which he was incarcerated provided little comfort to us, as we fought to stay together as a family with no outside support. We soon realized the loss and grief my sons suffered was simply beyond the grasp of society, and that the world has little use for the families of felons and ex-offenders. Their pain was ignored and their suffering met with contempt. It was too much to bear alone.
The day Ron went to prison was the day he gave his life to Christ. Two months later, in a prison visiting room, Ron led me in a prayer and I gave my life over to Christ as well. Our prayer became, “Lord, send us where no one else will go.” By the grace of God, during those difficult 15 years of Ron’s incarceration, we overcame many obstacles including welfare, poor lifestyle choices, and a host of other issues inherent to family separation as a result of incarceration. Ron learned to function as a husband and father from behind bars, while I was able to successfully get off of welfare. Despite the hardships we endured, we built a new life together for our children; one free of shame and embarrassment.
Over the course of the fifteen years, we went to visit Ron several times a month. Ron was transferred through 7 different penitentiaries, but, despite the changes and the distance, we found a new way of staying connected and growing stronger as a family. Our sons flourished in spite of the labels they were forced to live with as children of a convicted felon. Our now healthy marriage, faith and relationship with our children was the reason why my sons and I could overcome such a horrible circumstance. As time passed, we saw dozens of families fall apart, and hundreds of youth suffering, whether they were dealing with incarceration or not. Ron and I began to envision an outreach designed to do two things: provide youth with a safe haven and help them make positive lifestyle chocies, and help adults and youth who have already made mistakes build a new life.
Ron continually inspired me and encouraged me that we COULD make a difference for all those who came behind us. I believed him, and we took on a new mission beyond just our own family. In 1993, we began with a program we developed called Keeping FAITH (now the Keeping Families And Inmates Together in Harmony program .) In this program, Ron mentored other men in prison, while I would meet with and encourage their families on the outside. This was the beginning of the Ridge Project. In 2000, while Ron was still incarcerated, we officially founded the Ridge Project. Ron continued to mentor incarcerated men, while I worked with their families, and I also began an after-school program to help at-risk or struggling youth.
In September of 2006, Ron was released, and within two weeks we were awarded an OFA grant to work within prisons. Shortly after that, we began serving incarcerated fathers and their families. Additionally, demand for our youth services continued to grow. Because the demand for services for the youth and the incarcerated families was so great, Ron and I each agreed to oversee a portion of the programming. Ron led our prison ministry, and I oversaw our youth division.
Today, as co-directors of the Ridge, Ron and I travel throughout Ohio, strengthening youth and families and bringing hope and healing to the hopeless and wounded families. Our sons have spoken at schools and events across the country. We work to serve families as well as to educate communities, churches, and policy makers about the importance of abstinence and relationship education within both youth development and re-entry programs. In addition, we are advocates for those overcoming the culture of incarceration. Together with our staff, we help build and maintain healthy, stable families so children can grow up in safety, having the security of knowing they are loved.
The RIDGE Project has now become nationally recognized as a leader in serving youth and families. Our programs are making a remarkable impact on the individuals we are honored to serve, and we know that families are being strengthened, youth are making wise choices and setting high goals for themselves, and generational cycles of welfare dependency, incarceration and fatherlessness are being averted and broken. The greatest satisfaction for us, however, does not come from the recognition – it comes from hearing the thousands of stories from youth and families who are stronger now because of the work we have done.
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