Nikki Smith has vivid recollections of driving a young woman to the Tipton Correctional Center in Tipton, Missouri, so her incarcerated husband could see for the first time his two-year-old daughter.
Smith also remembers transporting another woman, her husband and both her sons behind bars, to three separate prisons, in order that she might visit them for a few tearful hours.
"Just because you've done something wrong doesn't mean the whole family should have to suffer," says Smith.
Last October the 35-year-old north county woman began a service she calls A Family Thing Transportation. Its mission is to provide reliable transportation to bring families of prisoners together.
She's posted hundred of flyers throughout the St. Louis area and estimates that she gets 10 to 15 calls a day from people desperate for rides.
"I get some who don't have a car, or who don't want to drive alone to the prison, or who maybe they are on some kind of medication that they can't drive," says Smith, who works behind the registration desk at DePaul Hospital in Bridgeton. "Some of these people haven't see their husband, or wife, or son, or daughter, in years."
So far, Smith estimates that she's hauled about 60 family members to eight correctional institutions, including Potosi and Booneville. Typically, she rents a van or SUV. On her first trip in October, a three-hour voyage to Tipton, seven family members met in front of a Walgreens in north county.
"I understand how it feels to to have person you love that you can't see," says Smith. "So yes, I've gone through all of this before."
When she was 18 years old and 8 months pregnant, Smith was told her that the father of her unborn son was going to jail.
As she recounts in her brochure, "I was determined to do whatever it took to make sure that my son knew who is father was and that he bonded with him as a child. I found a transportation company at a church that took my son and I to see his father almost every Saturday for three years."
Smith is hopeful that one day she'll be able to buy a small bus or van. "It get kind of expensive to keep renting. Right now, I'm looking for donations."
Smith can be reached at 314-285-3793 or by e-mail at email@example.com.