By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Hope House director Carol Fennelly excitedly pointed both of her index fingers at 15-year-old Deanna, who smiled and hugged her new Tweety Bird stuffed toy.
"You got it!" Fennelly said, explaining to bystanders: "She's a Tweety freak."
Deanna, one of a number of guests at Hope House's Christmas party for the children of prisoners, nodded in gratitude for the donated present.
But it could scarcely compare with the one that she received in September. That was when her father was transferred to a Southwest halfway house after six years in federal prisons far away.
Last night at the Edmund Burke School off Connecticut Avenue, about 50 District children like Deanna, whose fathers are incarcerated, gathered for a festive occasion with others who share similar experiences. It was the seventh annual such event for Hope House, which tries throughout the year to keep D.C. area children connected with their fathers.
Development of the program gained impetus from the law that closed the District's prison complex at Lorton in Fairfax County. It meant the dispersal of thousands of D.C. inmates to institutions across the country.
Many were sent hundreds of miles away, far enough to strain the vital but often slender lifelines that connected them to the families they left behind. Fennelly, who had been active with Mitch Snyder in tending to the needs of the homeless in the Washington area, took up the cause of the Lorton families.
In particular, she created Hope House to maintain and strengthen those connections. Sociologists have recognized the severe psychic and emotional hazards facing children whose parents -- particularly fathers -- have been removed from their homes or neighborhoods.
At last night's party, in the atrium of Edmund Burke, an independent school, children noshed on cookies and focaccia sandwiches while a pianist sounded the chords and notes of Christmas standards. Santa Claus doled out dozens of glistening black plastic bags, bulging with the sharp corners of packages containing donated toys.
About 100 Burke schoolchildren, parents and staff members volunteered to welcome guests and run the "Burkindales" store -- a room full of donated soaps, picture frames and other knickknacks. Hope House children could sift through the free items and have them wrapped for those who care for them while their fathers are away.
"It's cool because we've got presents to give," Deanna said. "We rarely get to give them gifts. . . . It's soothing."
Deanna's father was locked up on drug charges when the teenager was 9 years old. But for the past three years, Hope House has made it possible for her to stay in touch with him through videoconference calls. That nurtured their connection, which has strengthened now that he is in the District again.
These days, Deanna is able to introduce her dad to her girlfriends. They go out to eat or shop and have the arguments that teenage girls have with their fathers.
"We're learning to live with each other now," she said.
"This is our Hope House family reunion," Fennelly said. "It's such a special joy here, especially with so many fathers home."