Restorative Justice Office facilitates group for parents of prisoners and crime victims.It is common to hear people who have difficulties thank God for giving them hope in their lives. But the way such gratefulness was voiced by a group of women on a chilly winter’s morning resounded in such a way that their pain could be felt.Diane Mendoza, Lilly Gallo, Nora Agredano, Bertha Fonseca and Agnes Gibboney had gathered around a table one recent Saturday to vent, to narrate in a few minutes the events that changed their lives in a split second. A testimony that now they use to strengthen each other and others who are going through the ordeal they have gone through. All share a common pain. They are mothers of victims of crime; some are also mothers of offenders serving time in jail. They are the driving force of Families of the Incarcerated, a program of the archdiocesan Office of Restorative Justice, which assists families through support groups and facilitating workshops on criminal and immigration laws to help empower families to advocate for their loved ones.“These women are the pillars of the group,” said Amalia Molina, the support group facilitator and families of victims’ advocate for the Office of Restorative Justice. “Our call is to bring others who want to heal, who want to have life and honor the One in heaven.” She underscored that both the families of the incarcerated and the families of victims “suffer a similar pain.”Mendez narrated how she had a difficult marriage with a husband who suffered mental illness and was in and out of jail, until one day he was murdered by their son, in a schizophrenic episode. Four years since the tragedy that devastated her whole family, her son is still waiting for trial.Still, “I thank God for being in my life!” Mendez exclaimed. “He gives me hope! He is a forgiving God and helps me and my family. Without him I would be a basket case, but I know He has a plan for me and for all of us,” she said with determination.Being part of the group, she added, helps her “see the big picture” and understand others suffering with similar illnesses as the one suffered by her son and her husband. “God and these meetings open our eyes when these tragic things happen,” she said.Then it was Gallo’s turn.She is the stepmother of Andrew Gallo, who was sentenced to 51 years to life for the 2010 drunk-driving crash that killed Los Angeles Angels’ pitcher Nick Adenhart and two friends. At 23, Andrew will not be eligible for parole until he has served 49 years in prison.The whole ordeal has broken the family, who initially blamed Lilly Gallo for having handed the car keys to both her stepson and to her own son, who was injured during the crash.“I have to take care of myself and push some individuals away from my life because I’m tired of being picked on,” she said with big tears falling down her cheeks. For a long time, she said, she buried her feelings “so I could survive.”“I’m tired of hurting,” she continued after sharing that the recent passing of her three-year-old granddaughter added to her pain.“But I’m holding on to God,” she smiled through tearful eyes. “I hope this will one day have a happy ending.”“You have come a long way,” Molina told her. “That is the reason we’re here, so you can deal with your pain.” Initially, Gallo kept her feelings to herself, but as she heard the other women freely talk about their experiences and saw its benefits, she gradually started opening up. On this January 12 morning meeting it was her turn to encourage a couple attending for the first time.Agredano shared how she is “tired of hurting.” She was at bereavement classes at her home church, St. Lawrence of Brindisi, when a neighbor suddenly showed up to give her the news. Her younger son had been killed in a drive-by shooting. She has an older son in prison.“We do a lot of work with Amalia,” she said. “She takes us into prisons to share our stories and what I get from those visits is that it does get better, although I miss my sons and I cry every time I tell their story.”Wiping away tears, she added, “Sometimes it feels like it doesn’t get better, but I move on with the help of Father God.”When Fonseca’s son was incarcerated 20 years ago, she too was desperate, devastated, having nowhere to go, she said. Since she started attending the support group, her life has changed and also her son’s. After being healed from liver cancer and hepatitis C, he is now mentoring other prisoners and introducing them to God, she said.Before this happened, she noted, she used to blame all the incarcerated and their families for their actions. Through her prison visits and direct contact with offenders and their families, as well as the families of victims, she has learned that the best she can do is give God’s love. “In the process God changed my heart,” she declared.Gibboney is on the other side of the crime scene. Her son — who would have turned 40 this year — was mistakenly shot and killed at a party he was attending in April 2002.“As time passes, I am more scared that I will forget how he looked like and sounded like. He was funny, he liked to joke,” she shared with the group.Anger and resentment filled her heart in the days and months following the death of her only son (she has two daughters). Then one day she heard a woman at an event, who was sharing how she felt after learning her son had taken the life of someone else and was now incarcerated.“When I heard her,” said Gibboney, “I was released from my anger because I learned that although she was the mother of someone similar to the person who took my son’s life, she too was suffering like I was.”Gibboney, also involved in prison ministry, said she does not keep any resentment toward offenders’ families anymore. Instead of seeing herself as a victim, she noted, she views herself as a survivor.She became good friends with the other mother and together they advocated for passage of Senate Bill 9, which will help those sentenced to life without the possibility of parole before they had turned 18, to have the opportunity for resentencing after serving at least 10 years in prison.When Carlos and Josefina Golodinez — attending for the first time — shared about their son being sentenced to 90 years in prison, all the women gave them hope. “Things will get better,” they told the couple. “Amalia has taken us to places we would have never gone,” said Agredano. “Here we learn to push the grief and sorrow to move on during birthdays and other special occasions. We get to cry and we get to laugh. Here we take the masks off.”Toward the end of the meeting, Molina asked each participant to see themselves as the baby in a photo she had handed each of them and to reflect on what they needed to do to become like that baby, while meditation music played in the background.Almost in unison, the women said that although the hurt is still within, they would commit to seek that “beautiful baby” inside of them, “one day at a time.”“This is about forgiveness, breaking chains of pain and accepting reality,” Amalia told the women.For more information about Families of the Incarcerated, call (877) 712-1597 or (213) 428-4820, extension 24. English and Spanish support groups meet every Tuesday at Santa Rosa Community Center in San Fernando (near Santa Rosa Church) at 7 p.m.; and the first Tuesday of the month at St. Monica Church at 7 p.m. Call Jane at (213) 637-7554.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0301/families/{/gallery}