'I see the difference in my daughter'

Aryinka Graham met her father, Johnny “Trey” Williams, for the first time when she was 8. On national TV.

This wasn’t a reality-show stunt. Rather, their meeting was part of ABC Nightline’s coverage of One Day with God’s prison ministry at Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, Mich. That’s where Williams is serving a 23-year sentence for killing a man in a bar fight.

Aryinka’s mother, Chekesha Graham, heard from many people who said the girl shouldn’t see her father behind the walls. And Chekesha had her own resentments toward Williams, accumulated over the years.

But Chekesha, like One Day with God founder Scottie Barnes, knew what it was like to grow up with a father in prison. 

“I had to put myself in my daughter’s shoes,” she says. “I didn’t want her to grow up thinking, ‘I had a chance to meet my dad, but my mom wouldn’t do it because of what happened between them.’ ”

So Chekesha made the long trip from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to Michigan. And nearly two years later, she’s still glad she did.

“That was the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I see the difference in my daughter.” 

And she sees the difference in Williams too.

“He’s apologized a thousand times,” she says. “If he could do things over, he’d do them differently. He calls every weekend. He promised he’d never lose touch with her again, and he’s kept that promise to this day.”

But can a long-term relationship be sustained between a child and a parent who’s serving an extended sentence? Ask Austin Lloyd.

Lloyd’s dad was sentenced to 50 years when he was 2. But Lloyd has seen him at several One Day with God camps, starting when he was 6. He’s now a college senior, studying to be a dentist.

Those early memories are still with him. 

“I still remember discovering he eats hot dogs the exact same way as I do,” Lloyd says. “To an adult that might not mean much, but it does to a kid. Each time we were at the camp, I came out with something new, a connection to my dad that I didn’t have before.”

They still have a strong relationship today. And Lloyd now goes out of his way to promote One Day with God, readily speaking in public on its behalf. 

“I got a lot out of this ministry,” he says. “Any way I can help another kid be touched and grow in relationship with their father—or mother—who’s incarcerated, I’m more than happy to do that.” 

Originally published in the September 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.
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