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50 Nevada inmates get a chance to share ‘Christmas’ with family

Their living room smelled exactly how Christmas morning should.

A fir tree adorned with tinsel and lights towered over the inmate, Jerod Beck, and his 5-year-old daughter, Savanna, as they cuddled on the couch Thursday evening, gifts under the tree waiting to be unwrapped.

The cozy living room setting was just one of 50 such setups Thursday evening at The Crossing Church in the southwest Las Vegas Valley, where 50 prison inmates surprised their children with a living room Christmas experience.

The 50 Christmases surprise, complete with a catered dinner, gifts and a fresh-cut tree, was a joint monthslong effort by Hope for Prisoners, the Nevada Department of Corrections and 90.5 FM SOS Radio.

As the sun set behind the mountains Thursday, Beck shuffled into a large bus with two dozen more inmates outside Casa Grande Transitional Housing. He was dressed in his Sunday best: black dress pants, a teal button-up shirt and a tie to match.

During the 10-minute bus ride from Casa Grande to the church, the prisoners danced and sang along to the radio. But Beck, sitting at the front of the bus, was mostly quiet as he observed his fellow inmates.

“I’m absolutely so nervous,” he said, shifting in his seat. He hadn’t seen Savanna since April, and this year was his third Christmas while incarcerated.

Savanna was just shy of 3 years old, he said, when he was sentenced three to eight years on a narcotics charge, marking his third stint in prison.

In his small makeshift living room inside the church, Beck paced back and forth before plopping down on the couch, his legs bouncing with nerves. It was shortly after 4 p.m., and Savanna and his wife of almost 10 years, Kellie Beck, would be there any second.

Then his green eyes grew big.

“There she is,” he whispered.

Savanna, dressed in a red-velvet holiday dress, ran to her father, and as he scooped her up into his arms, Beck spoke into her ear.

“Come here, little girl. Daddy loves you,” he said, crying. “You’ve gotten so big. You’re such a beautiful girl.”

Meanwhile, in the living room next to Beck, Yesenia LaRue watched as her 11-year-old son, Jacob, opened his gifts.

LaRue has been incarcerated on a traffic charge since April 2015. Come Dec. 25, she will have missed four Christmases with her only son.

“It’s been rough for him,” she said, placing her hand on her son’s shoulder. “The first couple holidays were really hard for him because he couldn’t grasp that I was gone, and he was acting out.”

But she said that being able to spend a few hours with her son has made all the difference.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “This is the best thing ever, to not have to worry about getting in trouble but also having the freedom to have this special moment with my family that I otherwise would not have.”

Jon Ponder, founder and CEO of Hope for Prisoners, shared those sentiments. It was the driving force behind this event, he said.

Now in its fourth year, the Christmas surprise was the largest one yet, said Ponder, who is also an ex-inmate.

While sitting in an elevated seating area overlooking the church hall, Ponder admired the finished product of his team’s hard work.

“My hope is that this type of environment creates such an emotional tie to them that, when they get released, they will live for this moment on the couch with their family,” he said. “I want them to look for this moment and understand how important family is, so that they’ll live in light of that and won’t re-offend.”

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

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