Micheal Kelly was not yet 3 when his father went to prison.
Save for one visit, pictures and the occasional letter, the boy hadn't seen his father for the last seven years.
That changed Monday, when Micheal and 30 other young visitors boarded a bus to Okeechobee Correctional Institution. Accompanied by family members, they passed the fences topped with razor wire and through a metal detector. The kids were patted down before filing into the visiting room, where the inmates waited at long tables with coloring sheets and games.
Michael Kelly, serving time for robbery, home invasion and false imprisonment, looped his left arm around the son he hadn't seen in seven years. ``You OK?'' he asked.
``I miss you,'' 11-year-old Micheal Kelly responded, his voice hushed. He brought his father homemade Christmas cards.
Reaching around with his right hand, Michael Kelly rubbed his son's back.
``I used to do this to put him to sleep,'' he said. ``Seven years is a long time.''
His hand didn't move from the spot for more than 30 minutes.
Micheal Kelly was one of the 30 kids and their guardians who made the 2 ½ hour bus drive from a church near Liberty City to the prison, in a remote area at the northern tip of Lake Okeechobee. The visit was organized by the Service Network for Children of Inmates, which gets funding from The Children's Trust.
The organization is trying to make four trips a year to bring the kids and families from Miami-Dade to a handful of prisons. For many of them, they have no other way to get there. Buses also took kids from Miami to a prison in Ocala, and on Tuesday will take children to visit their parents being held in prison in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
``We try to make moments they remember as positive, not as painful,'' said Shellie Solomon, CEO of Justice & Security Strategies, part of the partnership.
``It helps to reestablish family relations,'' said RD McCracken, assistant warden for programs at Okeechobee. ``We saw nothing but a positive reaction.''
The children and their fathers sat at the long tables, playing checkers, Monopoly and Uno.
Melvin Johnson, 30, beamed as his son Marquiese, 12, and daughter Serena, 9, bounded up to him.
``This is a blessing for me and the kids,'' he said. ``To me I just love to be here with them. The love they have for me in spite of where I am and what I've done. They look beyond that and see their father.''
Johnson asked how they were doing in school and with music. Hand-crafted Christmas cards would be coming in the mail soon, he promised. They settled into a game of checkers.
``I like to see my daddy smile,'' Serena said.
Johnson tries to talk to his kids weekly, about school and fishing, something the family often did in any free time they had. He's been in prison for six or seven years, he said. He was sentenced to several life terms for armed robbery and kidnapping.
``I encourage them not to come to a place like this,'' he said. ``They're both on the right track.''
Read the full story at the Miami Herald.