CHOWCHILLA (CBS 13) – Two days before Mother’s Day, 1,100 children across the state of California had the chance to take a trip to see their moms. But it wasn’t your typical vacation. This was a journey behind bars to visit their mothers while they serve time in prison.
“Normal kids, they would celebrate Mother’s Day with their moms once they come home. But with us, we don’t get to do that,” said 13-year-old Costel Rusu.READ MORE: Elk Grove Police Conduct Investigation Into In-Custody Death
For Rusu and his sisters Jordyn Le, 10, and Alyssa Rusu, 15, the holiday celebration includes a two-hour journey to Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), a women’s prison in Chowchilla. Their mother, Mimi Le, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder.
“With other people, it’s kind of hard to relate,” Alyssa said. “Because their moms are home and they get to come home and see their moms and stuff. But with us, it’s like we don’t have a mom so we just come home and see each other.”
The rides are made possible through a program called “Get On the Bus,” sponsored by the Center for Restorative Justice. In its 16th year, children from San Diego to Redding get to take the free trip to see their mothers.
The cost is nearly a half million dollars but all of the funding comes from grants and private donations. The kids don’t pay for anything and it’s often the only time that some of the children see their mothers all year long.
“It’s pretty cool because we get to go see their mom, my daughter, and it makes them happy and it makes her happy,” said Brenda Le, Mimi’s mother. “I didn’t have to worry about gas. I didn’t have to worry about driving and getting worn out.”
She and her husband have been raising the three children on their own for the last 10 years.
“I was five,” Alyssa said, referring to her age when her mother’s sentence began. “I had to start being an adult at five.”
Costel was three when Mimi went away and the baby of the family, Jordyn, was only four-months-old.
“It makes me sad because I didn’t really have a relationship with her,” Jordyn said.
CBS13 sat down with the kids before they left and asked them the first thing they wanted to say to mom when they saw her.
“How you doin’?” Costel said, with a smile on his face.
“I’m gonna pull a prank on her,” Alyssa said. “I do that all the time.”
But three days later, the sight of her mother in a blue prison uniform brought tears to the teen’s eyes.
“It’s hard, it’s really, really hard,” Mimi said, holding her eldest daughter tightly. “She did a lot of growing up way faster than what she needed to.”READ MORE: El Dorado County Students Displaced By Caldor Flames
The kids spend roughly seven hours with their mothers. They play games, eat snacks, take pictures and catch up on all that they’ve missed in the last year.
“It means everything to me to be able to spend a whole day with just them,” Mimi said. “I just want them all to be babies again.”
A decade into her sentence, Mimi leads a self-help group, sharing her story with others and striving to set a good example for her kids.
“I follow all of the rules and regulations that I need to in order to participate every year,” Mimi said. “That way, they can grow up and do better than me, because I want them to be better than me.”
Even though Mimi has lost the freedom to live on her own, her mother Brenda still tries to give her daughter the freedom to be a parent.
That’s what I believe in because that’s their mom,” Brenda said. “She may have made a bad choice that one time, but we all do that. Mom always has the final say.”
“Yep, she sure does!” Jordyn said.
“It comes from a different place, though,” Mimi replied. “I think I’ve become more their friend and let the parental role go to my mom and my dad. I try and teach them through my example. Like, ‘this is what I did, don’t do this.’”
While the younger ones may be able to press pause on reality, Alyssa is still focused on the future of the family.
“After high school, I’m going to do about four years in the military and then use my GI bills to pay for college,” she said. “I’ll go to Harvard, get a law degree and work on my mom’s case. If I have a chance, I’m able to get her out on a maximum of 15 to 20 years, then I’m going to take that chance. Totally!”
“I know that I raised a really good girl,” Mimi said. “The circumstances are what they were so she did the best. I’m really, really proud of her.”
But Brenda isn’t convinced that Mimi should be behind bars either.
“We still have hope,” she said. “I mean, if we had good lawyers, we could have her out, but we do not have the financial ability to afford the good lawyers.”
As the day wound down, the family set aside the past to focus on making memories that they’ll cherish for a lifetime.MORE NEWS: Head-On Crash Leaves 1 Dead, 1 With Serious Injuries Near Roseville
“It’s the hardest part to watch them leave and know that I just can’t go with them,” Mimi said.