PLYMOUTH — Tuesday was the first time Enoch Arteaga has seen his three children in two years, all thanks to Camp Reunite at the Kettle Moraine Correctional Facility, a weeklong program facilitated by the nonprofit Hometown Heroes for children of incarcerated parents. An essential part of this program is reuniting families for lengthy visits where they can connect in ways that are difficult in traditional weekly visits.
“This gives me a chance to really dive a little bit more in to see how they're growing and their personalities and all that,” Arteaga said.
Court records show Arteaga was sentenced to prison in 2021 for armed robbery.
Arteaga and his kids talk over the phone a few times a week… but his 14-year-old daughter Amya says it can’t compare to in-person time.
“Not having my father, like there in the flesh, you know… it's definitely hard,” Amya Arteaga said. “I feel like any of these kids here would say that.”
For families like the Arteagas, this week presents an opportunity to make up for lost time.
“I was always involved in their lives,” Enoch Arteaga said, “I know getting arrested affected them. And it still does, you know, being away. I just give them so much credit for the strength they have and being able to do what they do in school, grades are good, they’re involved in sports involved in all that. They're incredible.”
Amya Arteaga said bonding with other kids who can understand her situation is one of the most important parts of the camp to her, second only to being able to spend time with her dad.
“They can’t act like they can judge or they can make fun, you know, like they're going through the same thing,” Amya Arteaga said.
The camp launched in 2018 at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution, the Department of Corrections maximum-security facility for women, where children could connect with their mothers who were incarcerated.
"What it definitely provides is that relational building. Like we all we all want our parents around us as kids. We need somebody. We need to be around our caregivers, our moms, our dads. And Camp Reunite gives that opportunity for kids to reconnect with their dads, to build resiliency, to build friendships, then also to be with kids who have been in similar situations," Andrew Gappa, camp director and co-founder, said.
In 2020, Kettle Moraine adopted the program for their male inmates. However, pandemic restrictions forced the event to be virtual for two years. 2022 marked the first year the camp was in-person.
Department of Corrections secretary Kevin Carr said that programs like this are a key reason he decided to lead the DOC.
“The more connections that folks who are incarcerated have with their family and kids and their communities, the more successful their reentry is back into our communities is when they're released from prison,” Carr said.
Inmate Mike Pezewski and his 14-year-old son Brandon said attending the camp was a great opportunity to continue their already-strong bond.
“We have a great relationship,” Pezewski said. “We talk to each other on the phone and we have weekly visits. I've been here five years now, m,ore or less watching him grow up while I'm locked up. That's difficult. But we have a really good relationship. We love each other a lot and I can't wait till I come home.”
Neil Willenson, co-founder of Camp Reunite, said he wanted to create a program like this after fostering children who have an incarcerated parent.
“We had a vision to create a plac, a real safe haven, for children who had an incarcerated parent to be with other kids who truly understand, Willenson said. “But the most important facet of the program is that we reunite them with their parent for two long, extended five hour visits with their father or in some cases, their mother.”
When the kids aren’t with their fathers, they’re participating in mental health promotion activities and bonding with other children of incarcerated parents.