Diocesan groups and others bring cheer and dignity to incarcerated youth and adults

By Greg Hardesty     12/24/2014

They came bearing a small gift—socks to keep the feet of the young inmates warm during the winter.

Last Christmas Eve volunteers from St. Angela Merici Church in Brea entered the Orange County Youth Guidance Center, the 80-bed, medium-security facility in Orange that offers substance abuse rehabilitation for minors and young adults ages 13 through 20.

Operated by the Orange County Probation Department, the Youth Guidance Center, like other facilities for incarcerated minors and adults throughout the county, isn’t the cheeriest place to be—especially during the holiday season.

But Fred La Puzza, Director of the Office of Restorative Justice/Detention Ministry for the Diocese of Orange, and his fellow Catholics were intent on bringing a little cheer to those spending Christmas behind bars, away from loved ones.

The gift La Puzza carried was among dozens collected by St. Angela Merici parishioners for the young prisoners at the center.

“Where did this come from?” a young inmate asked La Puzza.

“The parish community,” La Puzza told him.

“Really? Do they know who they’re giving this to?”

The reaction, La Puzza says, is typical among many young people and adults whose bad choices have put them behind bars for the holidays.

Many inmates, especially this time of year, feel unworthy and unloved, says La Puzza.

His ministry, along with a handful of other organizations, does what it can from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day to provide a little dignity and happiness to people cut off from society.

They do so in the spirit of the words proclaimed in Matthew 25:36: “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

“The greatest gift we give in this ministry is our presence,” La Puzza says. “Just coming in and spending time with them is a sign that somebody cares.”

About 65 percent of incarcerated minors and adults in Orange County are Catholics, according to La Puzza.

Throughout the year, the Office of Restorative Justice/Detention Ministry coordinates Communion services, Bible study and faith enrichment groups, and one-on-one pastoral visitations for the roughly 7,000 adults and 300 minors (the numbers fluctuate) who are behind bars in the county.

La Puzza’s ministry employs a full-time chaplain, Father Francis Ng. Priests throughout the county also donate their time to celebrate Mass, hear confessions and visit inmates one-on-one.

During the holiday season, this outreach takes different forms, such as the special Christmas Eve visit provided by St. Angela Merici.

It starts on Thanksgiving, with inmates at the 434-bed Juvenile Hall in Orange being served complete dinners.

On Dec. 5, a group of singers from La Puzza’s home parish of St. Joachim Church in Costa Mesa and from other parish choirs throughout the diocese brought music and smiles to the youth at Juvenile Hall.

Andrew Everson, a liturgical composer, musician and choral director at St. Joachim Church, led the youth in sing-alongs to such classic holiday songs as “Jingle Bells,” “Away in a Manger,” “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” and other favorites.

Everson strummed his acoustic guitar as the youth sang along on sheets with printed lyrics.

“Some of the (youth) were really into it, some of them just watched from the sidelines, but you could see the smiles on many of their faces,” La Puzza says.

La Puzza started at the ministry as a volunteer 26 years ago.

“Most adult repeat offenders tell me that Christmas is just another day,” he says. “It’s almost like they’re living in another world in there. For adult inmates during the holidays, visits from family members seem to be the biggest thing they look forward to.”

Jail operations don’t allow relatives of inmates to share special Christmas time together, he says. One organization, the Society of St. Vincent De Paul, does what it can to create an experience as close to that of Christmas as possible.

On Dec. 16, the Society of St. Vincent De Paul and the nonprofit organization Friends Outside held a Christmas party for families of adult inmates at the Phoenix Club in Anaheim.

The greatest gift we give in this ministry is our presence. Just coming in and spending time with them is a sign that somebody cares.

—Fred La Puzza, Director of the Office of Restorative Justice/Detention Ministry for the Diocese of Orange

About 200 children of incarcerated individuals—in most cases, the father is behind bars—were treated to a catered lunch and given gifts. They also enjoyed crafts and special guests.

A few days before that, on Dec. 13, the ministry Christbound held an Advent/Christmas event at the Youth Guidance Center called “Disciples Making Disciples”. It was the first time the volunteers at the weekly outreach ministry held a special event for the youth.

The evening included praise and worship music and presentations by speakers based on Advent and Christmas themes. The incarcerated youth also were treated to hot chocolate and pan dulce.

In another special effort during the holidays, Christmas cards donated by parishioners throughout the county are distributed to about 6,500 inmates, a process that begins in September since each card has to be searched. Inmates can receive up to two cards each.

“This gives them a sense of being able to do something special for their loved ones,” La Puzza said. “It also gives them a sense of dignity.”