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Published: Monday, 7/31/2006

Area Girl Scout program is unique in uniting daughters with jailed dads

BY CARIN YAVORCIK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The sole clue to uniqueness is the barbed wire fence looming outside the windows.

Troop 884 meets the second and fourth Wednesday of every month at the Allen Correctional Institution, about 78 miles southwest of Toledo. The Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program enables Scouts to meet at prisons and strengthen their relationships with parents. These are the troop's only meetings outside of camping trips; all of the girls have a father at the institution.

There are about 40 mother/daughter programs nationwide, but the Lima troop is the only one to bring fathers and daughters together.

Troop leader Julie Sturgill, who has been with the program since it started in 2000, said that she's had other groups call to talk to her about starting up father-daughter programs, but none has panned out.

The Girl Scouts of Appleseed Ridge serve Allen, Auglaize, Hancock, Hardin, Logan, Mercer, Paulding, Putnam, Shelby, and Van Wert counties.

We felt that since we had a men's prison here basically in our backyard, it was something that could benefit the girls," Ms. Sturgill said. "They need a relationship - that is an anchor to them."

And the girls aren't the only ones who benefit.

"It keeps people out of trouble, because if you get in trouble you can't be in it anymore," said John Sawyer as he helped his daughter Natasha, 9, of Lima glue magazine cutouts to a piece of colored paper.

Julie Lee, 9, of Appleseed Ridge Girl Scout Troop 884, gets a hug from her dad, James Lee, an inmate at the prison. Julie Lee, 9, of Appleseed Ridge Girl Scout Troop 884, gets a hug from her dad, James Lee, an inmate at the prison.
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"You can either get a lot worse in here or get a lot better," he said, adding that participating in programs like Beyond Bars is one of the best ways to take the latter course.

"A lot of the programs here are family oriented but they don't actually have family members. This is the only one that has family members here in the entire state that I've heard of."

Sawyer, who has served three years for drug trafficking, will be free next month.

Decked out in purple - from the fluffy tie keeping her blond ringlets in place to the lavender Reeboks on her feet - Miss Sawyer said the first thing they're going to do when her father gets out is go to Cedar Point.

Though they've never been there together before, "we've been to the Allen County Fairgrounds when I was 6," she said.

"You held an alligator," her father added.

"A baby one," she agreed.

Not all the families will be so soon reunited on the outside.

Appleseed Ridge Girl Scout Lazaria Baker, 6, clings to her father, John Baker. Baker could be incarcerated until 2020. Appleseed Ridge Girl Scout Lazaria Baker, 6, clings to her father, John Baker. Baker could be incarcerated until 2020.
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John Baker was one of the first inmates to enter the visiting room last Wednesday. He swept his 6-year-old daughter, Lazaria, up in a bear hug and she gave him a big, brown-eyed smile. Later, they shared a snack of Rice Krispies Treats as he quizzed her on her math.

Baker, also serving time for drug trafficking, could be in prison until 2020.

"So, I'll be 21," said his daughter, who lives in Lima. Her father explained that the case is still in court and he could be out sooner.

"I hope I'll still be 6 when you get out," the girl replied.

Most of the fathers mentioned how much change they see in the growing girls from meeting to meeting.

"Every other week I notice something different," said Baker, who also has an older daughter. "Seeing how they're growing, what they're going to be. I'm just happy to be a part of their lives, some way, some how."

"Whatever we did to get put here, this is our punishment," Sawyer said. "But everybody around you gets punished too, and this is a way to ease it off of them."

On this Wednesday afternoon, the girls are doing a money management project aimed at youngsters. They make a list of needs and wants, and then their fathers help them look through ads to find products to fit each list, the total cost being no more than $1,000.

The Scouts cut out pictures of electronics, furniture, food, clothes, and a few power tools. But perhaps the most profound wishes cannot be cut out of any advertisement.

From left, Appleseed Ridge Girl Scouts Jami Lee, 7, Natasha Sawyer, 9, and Julie Lee, 9, leave the Allen County Correctional Institution. From left, Appleseed Ridge Girl Scouts Jami Lee, 7, Natasha Sawyer, 9, and Julie Lee, 9, leave the Allen County Correctional Institution.
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"To be a family," one bespectacled Scout has written.

"I want my freedom, but $1,000 ain't gonna buy that," said another inmate, Gilbert Fox, who's doing time for engaging in corrupt activity. His daughter lives in Columbus and couldn't make this meeting, but he dutifully did the project and will give it to her next time.

"She's something else," he said proudly. "She livens up the place."

The hardest part of saying goodbye, Fox said, is knowing that it will be weeks before he sees his daughter again.

"And knowing that I can't walk out there with her," he added.

After two short hours, it's time for the girls to pack up and go home.

Miss Baker gives her father a final hug; Sawyer bends down to kiss his daughter on the forehead.

He follows her with his eyes until she's out of sight.

Contact Carin Yavorcik at: cyavorcik@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.



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