Point of the Mountain • It was the little changes that the mothers noticed first.

The son who has grown so tall that, at 14, he towers over his mother’s head.

The voice that’s starting to change and crack. The “two big people teeth” where baby teeth once were.

And the freckles.

“I didn’t think he would have freckles,” a surprised Elicia Chavez said, beaming at her young son, whose cheeks now are speckled with a constellation of spots. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ he’s got my freckles and my smile.”

The last time Chavez, 23, saw her son, Damiano, he was weeks from his second birthday. Now he’s nearly 5 and living with an aunt in northern Utah while Chavez serves a one-to-15-year term in the Utah State Prison on a robbery conviction.

In between, she’s had only pictures.

“In a picture, you can see him growing up,” she said, pointing at the dark-haired boy who laughed as he tossed bean bags and bounced between activities across the prison yard. “But I can’t see that, I can’t hear that.”

Saturday was Kids Day at the state prison’s Timpanogos facility for women. It’s an event that allows incarcerated parents a rare three-hour visit with their kids to make crafts, play games and share a meal.

On Saturday, that included snacking on popcorn, candy corn and Halloween cookies, as well as painting pumpkins, making turkey handprints and creating hand-painted wooden frames for family pictures. And there were hugs, lots and lots of hold-tight hugs.

Utah prison officials couldn’t say how many state inmates are parents, but nationally between 50 percent and 75 percent of the more than 2.3 million incarcerated Americans have children, according to a 2017 report from the National Institute of Justice.

Those children — of which there may be as many as 2.7 million nationwide — face a mountain of challenges and are at higher risk for educational struggles, economic hardship, behavioral problems and more, the report states.

Kids Day is designed to help children stay better-connected with their parents and help the incarcerated maintain an active role in parenting.

Saturday’s event was the fourth at the prison and the second for female inmates. Participants earn the privilege through good behavior and success in prison programs. Each of the 156 women who saw their kids Saturday is in a residential treatment program and recovering from drug addiction, officials said.

Department of Corrections Executive Director Rollin Cook joined in the fun by playing a round of 9 Square in the Air with about a half-dozen kids and moms.

Cook wants to expand Kids Day so more inmates have the opportunity to bolster the family relationships they’ll need when they leave prison.

“One thing about this that just gets me is that moment when the kids run from [the entrance] to their parents,” he said. “It just shows you that, regardless of the wall, there’s a whole lot of love that goes on.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inmate Dianna Robles says goodbye to her children Brooklyn, left, Cameron, center, and Demitrie, right, at the end of
(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inmate Dianna Robles says goodbye to her children Brooklyn, left, Cameron, center, and Demitrie, right, at the end of "Kids Day" at the Utah State Prison, Saturday, October 7, 2017.

Dianna Robles, 32, fell to her knees when her three children — 14-year-old Demetrie, 11-year-old Brooklyn and 7-year-old Cameron — ran across the gymnasium floor and into her open arms.

“A lot of guilt and shame came up seeing them,” she said. “But we just started crying. They are not the same as when I first came to prison.”

Robles hasn’t seen her kids since October 2015, when she was arrested for a methamphetamine-induced aggravated assault with a knife on her mother. She pleaded guilty to charges in early 2016 and is serving a two-to-20-year sentence.

Drug-free for 24 months, she said she thinks about her kids now in a way she didn’t, or couldn’t, when she was doing drugs.

“I was selfish in my addiction,” said Robles, who used drugs for 17 years. “If I was thinking of them, I wouldn’t have been using.”

Before the visit, Robles said she was so nervous she couldn’t sleep.

“I was just pacing and watching out the window,” she said. “It was like waiting for Santa to come.”

Chavez admitted to having similar jitters, although the stakes for her are different: Damiano doesn’t know she is his mother. That title belongs to the aunt who is raising him.

“At first, I didn’t know what to do,” said Chavez, who has finished high school and college while incarcerated. “I mean, can I hug him? I wanted to be as respectful as possible, so I just took it slow.”

Damiano broke the ice by asking Chavez to open a packaged Danish for him. He soon warmed up to a hug, which made his mother’s heart soar.

“I don’t even know how to express it,” Chavez said. “I feel complete again.”