Captive hearts


Most people will embrace near and dear ones and cozy up to a sumptuous Thanksgiving Day feast today.

But not South Philly resident Vikki, who declined to give her last name.

The 47-year-old’s world came crashing down around her at this time last year. That’s when her 22-year-old son — her only child — received a federal prison sentence. And nothing has ever been the same for Vikki and her husband of 23 years.

"It just feels like a part of me has died. I don’t understand," she said. "My son has never been in trouble. He was always a good kid. I don’t know why he did what he did. I haven’t celebrated any of the holidays, and this year I won’t either. I’m not up to it."

Vikki takes some comfort in knowing that one day, she will welcome her child home, unlike mothers whose sons are serving life sentences. In Pennsylvania, a life sentence means no parole.

It’s been a long, lonely and, at times, tormented road for Vikki and so many others like her.

The stress has taken its toll on her health, she said. She suffers from high blood pressure and other health problems that eventually forced her to stop working. However, Vikki recently completed some classes, and hopes to rejoin the workforce soon.

"I’m trying to get back to what would have been a normal life for me had this not occurred," she said.

But she couldn’t have made those strides without some extra help, Vikki maintains. Loving support from her spouse, extended family members and friends just wasn’t enough, she noted. Spiraling into a pit of despair, she couldn’t even bring herself to go out in public.

That is, until she found Jack and Sophie Weber.

During one of Vikki’s many sleepless nights, she was channel-surfing when she spotted a public service announcement for the Webers’ support group for the families and friends that inmates leave behind.

The couple, who live in the Northeast, founded Mary Mother of Captives seven years ago when their own son was serving time in prison. The group meets at 7 p.m. once a month in North Philly, Southwest and South Philly, the Northeast and Delaware County.

The South Philly meeting takes place the third Tuesday of the month inside St. Charles Senior Citizen Center at 1941 Christian St.

"Going to that support group helped me to stay in touch with people, because I had completely withdrawn," Vikki said.

In a matter of months, she went from being a member to the group facilitator of the South Philly meeting.

Sophie Weber acknowledged she started the meetings out of her own feelings of desperation, after searching in vain for an appropriate support group to join.

Although all meetings begin with a prayer, reciting it is optional. The Webers are quick to point out that Mary Mother of Captives is not a prayer meeting but a support group — a place for people to gather and share their feelings.

"We’ve had someone in prison so we know what it’s like. They come to get that comfort," Sophie said. "Every situation is different. But if you’re a mother, the hurt is the same. If you’re a wife, the hurt is the same. The crime is different but the pain is the same."

A short agenda follows the prayer. During this time, the founders inform members of recently passed laws or other news concerning the criminal-justice system.

Vikki, who volunteers three days a week for state Rep. Harold James, attends a lot of meetings about the criminal justice system and considers herself well-informed on the latest news.

Then it’s time to open the floor to the members and let them speak their minds. Sharing, too, is optional. Many people who attend the meetings rarely speak; they come to listen to others and derive solace and strength from that. It’s usually the new folks who have the hardest time talking, Sophie said.

No one is ever questioned about, or forced to reveal, why his or her loved one is serving time. And, most families and friends choose not to disclose the reason — just like Vikki and the founders themselves.

"He’s done his time and paid his debt to society and now he’s going on with his life," Jack Weber said of his son. Of those who have revealed their relatives’ offenses, the most common are driving under the influence and drug-related crimes.

In the time they’ve been conducting the group, the Webers have seen and heard it all, they said. One woman whose husband was on death row brought her family to meetings, and mothers of lifers also attend from time to time. "You name it, we have it. We can’t help the inmate directly, but we can help the one[s] they left behind," Sophie said.

Perhaps most of all, Mary Mother of Captives reminds the family members they are not alone. At times, the isolation can be the worst part of the situation, Jack noted.

If you think having a loved one in prison is something that only affects a small percentage of the population, think again. One out of 32 people have a family member on parole, on probation or in prison, Jack said, citing a statistic published recently in a local newspaper.

"You know it’s not so far removed as everyone would like to think it is," he added.

Mary Mother of Captives does not take a one-sided approach to the impact of crime. The group also considers victims and their families. Mothers who have lost sons to violent crimes sometimes attend the meetings, Sophie noted.

"We grieve for the victims. [A crime] affects more than two families. It goes on and on and on. It’s not just the inmate," Jack added.

Fear and sadness aside, guilt is the most prevalent emotion among family members, especially mothers.

And guilt is something with which Sophie Weber is well acquainted.

"It feels like your world has ended and why, as a mother, did I not do a better job?" she explains. "But you know that deep down inside, you did the best job you could. You know you have to go on and that people are going to ask you questions."

Sophie feels that if she stays in Mary Mother of Captives for the rest of her life, she can’t repay everything it’s done for her in her darkest hours.

That’s why the Webers do as much as they can for the other family members. Every year, the couple hosts picnics and a Christmas party at their home for the group.

Vikki, who started attending the meetings in January, credits the support group for her newfound strength and easing the burden of seeing her only child locked up.

If there’s one thing the facilitator would like the loved ones of inmates to know, it is that they don’t have to endure their pain in private. Mary Mother Captives can help shoulder the burden.

"I know it’s hard. It’s not hard because I’m ashamed. It’s hard because I can’t function fully right now," Vikki said. "You try every day to function normally. You have no explanation for what occurred. Your life is completely turned around and you have a new path you must travel down. It’s just devastating.

"I know what it’s like to keep on going — and you just have to."

For more information about the South Philly meetings, call Vikki at state Sen. Harold James’ office at 215-462-3308 Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.