The laughter, tears and warm embraces of family reunions filled the San Quentin visiting rooms during the day-long Get On The Bus (GOTB) event on Friday, May 31.
Daughters, sons and grandchildren reconnected with their incarcerated fathers and grandfathers after years—even decades—of separation.
Get On The Bus supports family relationships
“It’s amazing—it’s finally happening!” said 57-year-old inmate Nathaniel Sparks. “Today I saw my daughter and wife together for the first time in 24 years.”
His 25-year-old daughter Natalia was born when he was in county jail.
“I still have every letter my daughter has written me. At times it was the only thing that kept me going,” said Sparks.
Sparks also met his six- year-old grandson George for the first time at the visit.
“He was really excited,” said George’s mom, Natalia. “When I came to see my dad when I was little, it was exciting and fun. I knew it would be for my son. Six years old is old enough to remember.”
“Those are memories they’ll have forever,” said GOTB volunteer Sabrina Coca de Gómez. She is a bus coordinator who has volunteered with the program for the last four years. Coca de Gómez helped organize a bus that left from Sacramento at 3:15am with about ten visiting family members, then picked up more in Oakland on its way to San Quentin. Buses from southern California left the night before.
“I do it for the children— that’s my passion,” said Coca de Gómez.
“The joy on their faces— some have tears—it’s just beautiful. I couldn’t stop crying,” she said about the morning’s reunions.
Another first-time meeting was between Terron Toliver and his incarcerated father, Curtiss Frazier.
“I wanted to cry,” said Toliver, “It’s been 25 years and I never met this man. I wanted to know where I come from.” He said that although he had a great step- dad, he never felt like he belonged.
“I’m happy and sad. Sad that it took so long. Sad that he’s behind bars,” Toliver explained. “Happy because today I get to meet my dad— my biological dad. It’s a great feeling.”
“We look the same,” said Toliver, “I found my twin!” Then he laughed, saying, “When I first saw him, I wanted to take off my name tag and run like hell.” Toliver works, goes to school and is a father himself now, helping raise two small children of his own.
“I’m proud of him,” said Toliver’s father, Curtiss, who is paroling soon. “My number one goal is to make things right and build a relationship with my kids and grandkids,” he said.
Ángel Villafan is another incarcerated father going home soon. “When I first came in I was crying because I hadn’t seen my son in three years,” he said. He hadn’t held him in about five years, be- cause their visit in county jail was behind glass.
“It’s definitely a lot of work, but this is what we get: happy people, happy families…”
“I ran to him because I missed him,” said Villafan’s six-year-old son, Alex Servin. “I feel so happy.” Servin said he is graduating from kindergarten and can’t wait to play soccer with his dad when he comes home.
“He was so excited,” said Alex’s grandmother, Gloria Servin. “We broke into tears.
What Ángel wants most is to be with Alex.” She expressed her gratitude to the GOTB program for the joyous reunion, “Thank you so much!”
“It’s so uplifting,” said Stephanie Stubbs, a volunteer GOTB bus coordina- tor. She helped organize families for pickup at the Saint Columbus Church in Oakland. The bus took them to Saint Sebastian’s Church in Kentfield, where volunteers prepared and served breakfast to all the families before heading to San Quentin.
“It’s definitely a lot of work, but this is what we get: happy people, happy families—at least for a little while,” said Moisés Farias, who has volunteered with Stubbs for five years.
“I can really connect with them because I haven’t seen my mom for 12 years. Not because she’s in prison, but because she’s in Mexico. I can’t go to Mexico,” said Farias. “It’s really satisfying to see them connect,” he added.
“I’m excited! I haven’t seen my kids since 2013,” said 42-year-old incarcerated father Dion De- Merrill. “When I left, my youngest son was still in Pampers.”
His daughter D’oni just turned 18, old enough to chaperone her younger brothers on their first GOTB visit with their dad. “Today is about holding, touching, and hugging our dad—that’s the main thing,” she said. Dion Junior, 12, and Dr’Lon, eight, agreed.
DeMerrill explained that his wife cannot come because she is on the same criminal case. “Thank you for letting me spend the day with my kids,” he said to the GOTB program.
Benito Muro and family have been reunited five times through GOTB. Muro has been incarcerated at San Quentin for over seven years and about 15 years total. He was visiting with his four children, wife and mother.
With the help of dozens of volunteers, sponsors and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, GOTB has held the annual event for 19 years. Each year, GOTB reunites thousands of children with their parents at many of the men’s and women’s prisons across the state.
Millions of children have incarcerated parents nationwide. The strong family connections built by programs like Get On The Bus contribute to successful reentry when parolees rejoin their communities.
“Today is a blessing— thanks to Get On The Bus and Walkenhorst,” said 32-year- old incarcerated father Juan Navarro. He was visiting with his daughter Emily, 13, son Ivan, 11, and their mother LuzMaria Velis, 31.
Navarro said the program was not available at the other three prisons he was in, but he read about it in the San Quentin News. He transferred to The Q about a year ago. “It would be great if this program was available in every prison,” he said.
“I’m overwhelmed with emotion—happy and sad,” said 47-year-old incarcerated father Tyrone Douglass, who also arrived at San Quentin last year. He was teaching his 13-year-old daughter, Kassara, sign language and teaching his 11-year-old son, Tyrone Junior, how to play chess.
“Time flies—it’s almost over,” Douglas said, glancing up at the clock. “I’m already missing them.”