VILONIA — Pastor Jim King of the First Assembly of God in Vilonia said while observing children sprawled out on a concrete floor sleeping alongside their mother behind the walls of a Women’s Correctional Facility in Bolivia, he was thinking about his 2-year-old granddaughter.
"Every little girl looked like my little granddaughter," King said. "I kept thinking ‘what if she was born in that place?’"
King, along with 24 others from Arkansas Assembly of God churches, visited the prison while on a mission trip to Coachabamba, Bolivia, assisting a missionary family who has been there for about 16 years. In addition to King, those going from the Vilonia church included Charles Fulmer, Dixie Rackley and children’s pastor Ashley Duff.
"It’s a very poor country," King said. "Children are already living in squalor — atrocious conditions. If a woman goes to prison and there is no one to leave her children with, she takes them with her."
Where the women prisoners and children were being held, King said, reminded him of movie scenes depicting an open courtyard in a poor area of a cramped town. Clothing, washed by hand, is hanging everywhere to dry, he added.
"The mothers are responsible for all of their children’s needs, not the prison," King said.
Rather than housed in rooms, King also said, spots are assigned to the women prisoners.That is where the mothers are expected to bed, feed as well as nurture their children.
"The kids have to fight for food while they are in there," King said. "Either the mom has to share or they do without."
The most common reason for imprisonment, King said, is "carrying of drugs." And, the minimum sentence, he said, is about five years leaving many of the children to grow up behind bars.
The missionary couple, King said, has made a tremendous difference since being in the country. They have started 30 churches, a Bible school and built a facility to house children of prisoners. Native couples are paid to serve as house parents and the children living in the facility are transported on Fridays to the prison to visit with their mothers for four hours.
On that note, King said the couple have also initiated the building of a two-room daycare inside the prison that serves children from birth to 5 years old.
"The sad thing is some of the prisoner mothers are weary of it and won’t let their children go," King said
Arriving in Bolivia following an eight hour flight from Miami, King said the group began working and continued to do so for the next eight days.
"We laid over 4,000 square feet of ceramic tile and painted what would be equal to two or three houses," he said.
Each person on the mission trip paid their way including for the food they ate. The church organization also paid for the materials that was used while they were there.
"The idea is we don’t cause them any expense while we are there," King said. "We are there to help not hinder."
The objective of the trip was to help with the completion of a facility where church services could be held. It will also serve as a place to feed about 500 children everyday, King said, "from the neighborhood," which they do with the help of other organizations including Compassion International.
Currently, King said, the missionaries are purchasing land to build a home where mothers leaving the prison can stay and be taught a skill.
"What’s really neat about this whole thing is, there may be a day when the U.S. missionaries will be deported," King said. "This family has set all of this up where the nationals can run it."
The mission group plans to return to the country in a couple of years. In the meantime, they have several other trips in the works to assist with similar projects.