'Moment they will never forget': Dads reconnect with daughters for holiday social
A little girl in a red and white dress made her way through a hallway filled with metallic-colored streamers.
After walking the red carpet rolled out especially for her, she looked around the room in awe, stopping at the sight of a glittering disco ball overhead.
"Oooh Daddy!" she said in excitement.
Her father Mark Warner grinned as he led his 4-year-old daughter to a table decorated with a holiday theme.
Oklahoma City Transitional Center, a private community correctional facility run by CoreCivic, was transformed into a winter wonderland of sorts one recent evening. The center's dining hall became an event venue where incarcerated men like Warner could connect with their daughters in ways that many of them hadn't been able to for months, sometimes years.
Warner and his preschooler enjoyed music together from the beginning to the end of the Daddy-Daughter Social created by the Rev. Sheila Alford, Ph.D., along with center director Christe Sweat and a host of volunteers.
"She's been waiting for this since I told her about it," Warner said of his daughter.
The Spencer man said he didn't hesitate to sign up for the event.
"I wanted to spend some time with her. I never missed a day (with her) until I went to jail," he said.
Alford, who serves as the Oklahoma Department of Corrections' chaplain for community corrections, watched the duo along with other fathers and their daughters chatting, enjoying music and eating treats nearby. The chaplain said she asked Oklahoma City Transitional Center to host the recent social after she coordinated a similar event that was successful at Clara Waters Community Correctional Center.
Alford, an ordained African Methodist Episcopal pastor from Lawton, said the social gave the incarcerated men a rare opportunity to interact with their young loved ones in a fun, positive setting.
At the event they could "freely communicate one-on-one," Alford said.
"For that brief moment, they can just be a dad. A lot of these men want to have a positive relationship with their children for all the right reasons."
And she predicted that the positive interactions with their fathers would have a tremendous effect on the daughters.
"It's a moment they will never forget," Alford said.
"This will have an impact on these kids forever."
A volunteer DJ did his part to create a festive atmosphere.
"Cupid Shuffle," a perennial party favorite, was popular among the attendees. Also, the younger girls at the social seemed to enjoy holiday classics like "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" and the song "Let It Go" from Disney's animated movie "Frozen."
Noel Pando enjoyed music with all seven of his daughters. The Oklahoma City man had his wife Sonya dress the girls in burgundy outfits to match the dress shirt he wore. Pando proudly sat at the head of a table big enough to allow him and his daughters, ranging in age from 2 to 19, opportunities to chat comfortably together.
"I've been away for a while so this is spending quality time with them," he said.
His wife looked on with approval.
"It's a blessing. Everybody was looking forward to it," Sonya Pando said.
Center director Sweat said she opened the event up to all the incarcerated men at the correctional center but they had to meet certain conditions. They had to have a job, pass drug tests and have no misconducts. Sweat said about 10 men signed up to attend the social and special invitations were created for them to send to their loved ones. She said she thought more of the center's residents would sign up for future events once they heard the favorable responses from families that participated.
Alford shared similar comments.
"It's all about restoration, reunification and relationships. It's about restoring the families, connecting them again in a positive way," she said.
Katie Maddux, 20, and her father Jason Wolfe said they had mostly looked forward to the event so they could talk together.
"My dad sent me an invitation and he was really excited. I don't get to see him that much because I have a newborn," Maddux said.
"I thought it was a good idea because my daddy gets lonely a lot."
Wolfe said he anticipated the social because he missed his daughter. He said he had been at the center for 11 months and had about three or four months of an eight-year sentence to complete.
"I knew it would be spending time with her outside the environment of the OTC (Oklahoma City Transitional Center) halfway house," he said. "It looks like they went all out. It's a different mindset than OTC."
Meanwhile, Gregory Jones sat with two of his three daughters who attended the recent event. He said he thought the social was a great idea from the start.
"To be honest, it made me feel pretty good. It's kind of like a heartwarming feeling for the DOC to do this," Jones said.
"I'm just thankful for the DOC and the staff here for supporting families."
For Warner, spending a few hours with his little daughter made him more grateful that he will complete his nine-month sentence in March.
"This meant a lot to both of us," he said.