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Successful TACE event takes many hands

Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Wilsonville Rotary Club host 13th annual "Through a Child's Eyes" Event

ANDREW KILSTROM - TACE founder John Ludlow interacts with a child at Saturday's event.The first thing you notice when you enter the visitor’s waiting room of Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the womens’ prison in Wilsonville, is the level of anticipation in the tightly-packed room. All around are giddy children, surrounded by equally anxious family members, waiting to properly embrace mom for the first time in a long time.

It’s the morning of the Through a Child’s Eyes summer event.

As families transition to the outdoor area, the level of excitement only increases. Finally, after what must feel like a lifetime, the inmates begin to trickle out of the facility. The look on their faces as they speed toward their children and family members is one of bliss.

Behind the scenes — not wanting to take away from the moment — stands the event’s founder, John Ludlow. The longtime Wilsonville Rotary Club member can’t help but smile. That initial embrace a mom and her child share upon seeing one another is one of the biggest reasons TACE has continued to grow since its inception 13 years ago.

“The best part of the entire event is without a doubt when the inmates run down the ramp to their kids,” Ludlow said. “This program is so important for the inmates, and maybe even more importantly their children. ... Knowing that they’re loved goes such a long ways, for both the children and their mothers.”

ANDREW KILSTROM - Alex Kim, middle, plays a game at Saturday's TACE event.

From 11 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. families are able to reconnect with their incarcerated relatives. They can eat burgers and cotton candy, play carnival games, read books and even get their faces painted. For a day, the families can spend time in a carefree, relaxed environment.

“It’s just so important to these people to get a day to feel normal and get to see their children, and it’s just as important for their families,” said Steve Perry, a Rotary Club volunteer.

There were fewer than 30 volunteers for the first event, with minimal participation from inmates in 2002. That’s not the case today.

TACE has grown to nearly 200 volunteers throughout the year, with participation from more than 500 inmates leading up to the event. There were upwards of 125 volunteers over the course of Saturday and Sunday, not including the Coffee Creek Correctional staff of roughly 30-50 people. Altogether there were approximately 200 inmates that had families attend — 68 medium-security inmates particpated on Saturday, with more than 120 low-security inmates taking part on Sunday.

While the event has run without hiccups for some time, it’s easy to overlook the amount of time and manpower that goes into putting together a successful two days.

Between preparing food, setting up tents and games and organizing all of the background checks that need to take place prior, there is a lot to do. In fact, the event has turned into a year-round operation because of its sheer size.

“We have a paddle raise at the Heart of Gold Event for donations directly for the TACE program, but really we work on the TACE program year round,” said Doris Wehler, the event’s primary organizer. “Keeping track of the volunteers is a really huge job.”

Wehler works with Ludlow and the Coffee Creek Correctional staff to make sure all the necessary clearance is given to both inmates and their families well in advance to the big day.

Inmates are required to go six months with clear contact — meaning they’re involved in no fights or major incidents — in order to qualify for participation. Their families, meanwhile, have to be on the regular visitation list as well as pass a security check.

ANDREW KILSTROM - Inmates and their families line up for barbeque at Saturday's TACE event.

While Wehler is tasked with preparing the event itself, it’s Coffee Creek’s job to make sure there is maximum security in addition to a fun environment. While the staff tries its best to make sure everyone can participate, there are certain circumstances where inmates can’t be allowed to participate, or families can’t be admitted.

“The most difficult part is probably the screening of the applications and that whole process,” said Amanda Mooney, Coffee Creek Correctional Coordinator. “Even more so than the amount of work that goes into the process itself, potentially having to disappoint inmates because either their kids or they haven’t been approved is the hardest part.”

For their part, the inmates play a major role in making sure everything goes according to plan leading up to the event. Inmate volunteers set up all the tents and equipment the day prior, and even play a major part in raising money to pay for all the amenities.

The prison inmates donate all the money they make from recycling bottles and cans — purchased with money made from working over the course of the year — toward TACE, generating upwards of $2,000 most years. A couple of inmates even gave speeches at this year’s Heart of Gold fundraiser, spurring more than $10,000 in donations.

It also helps that all parties involved have developed good working relationships. It took more than 10 meetings to organize the event in its first year, but required just two in 2015, Ludlow said.

With the common goal of helping the inmates become better mothers as well as giving their children a chance to bond, Mooney said working with the Rotary Club is a pleasure.

“(Coffee Creek Correctional) truly wouldn’t be where we are today without them,” she said. “The event has grown to be so big and runs so smoothly.”

ANDREW KILSTROM - Angela Kim, left, gives her son, Alex, a warm embrace at Saturday's TACE event at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

Nobody appreciates the amount of work and effort more than the inmates themselves. Angela Kim, an inmate at Coffee Creek for eight years, said it’s the one time of year the women of the prison look forward to more than anything else.

It’s the same reason there hasn’t been any negative incidents involving an inmate during the event in its entire existence.

“If there had been a single incident in all these years it would have been canceled,” Wehler said. “It’s very self-policing. The inmates don’t want to jeopardize the opportunity to see their children and families.”

With approximately 1,200 inmates at Coffee Creek Correctional, there’s no telling just how large the event will grow. While accommodating the growing numbers in the future won’t be easy, everyone involved is happy to make the extra effort.

“We really do appreciate it,” Kim said, as she embraced her son Alex. “We look forward to this every single year.”