Time Served

When a parent goes to prison, what happens to the children? Some see hope in the face of a mentor.

Seven-year-old Essence Mayes is just tall enough to rest her arms on a table as she stands in a meeting room at the DeSoto Civic Center. Rocking back and forth on her elbows, she declares, "Reading, spelling, English, times tables. I like everything at school."

As the room outside the center's ice rink fills with children, Essence spies a familiar face. Turning excitedly to a woman beside her, she cries, "Miss Tammy, there's my cousin, there's my cousin!"

All of the 100 or so children at this skating party, including Essence and her relatives, share two things besides enthusiasm and energy: A parent who has served time behind bars, and a mentor -- as "Miss Tammy" is to Essence -- who spends several hours a month with the kids, taking them to the park or to movies, helping them with homework, driving them to soccer or band practice.

These mentors are part of Big Brothers/Big Sisters' (BB/BS) Amachi program, which started in Memphis in 2004, in collaboration with the Tennessee Department of Corrections, thanks to a three-year federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services. A total of $3 million over three years was awarded to administer the program in Memphis and Nashville, and BB/BS plans to re-apply for the grant and to continue Amachi mentoring.

With one in 32 American adults -- 7 million people -- incarcerated, on probation, or on parole, the number of children affected by their parents' status is staggering. "On any given day," says Kimberly Davis, BB/BS program director, "there are 7.3 million children with a parent in jail." Closer to home, stats are just as disturbing: More than 5,000 children in Shelby County and 150,000 in Tennessee are affected by incarceration. Perhaps even worse is the experts' forecast for the kids: 70 percent will follow in their parents' footsteps. As Adrienne Bailey, president and CEO of Memphis BB/BS, puts it, "You can't build enough jails to house all these people."

So the organization -- which has been in the mentoring business for 100 years -- has been trying another strategy, one that involves friendship, compassion, and genuine concern for the child. Will Amachi help stem the flood of young people who follow their parents to jail? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, the program seems to be making a difference in individual lives, both the children's and the mentors'.

"Only God knows . . ."

Five-year-old Amira Neely climbs the steps at the ice rink. Her hair, gathered at the crown, falls a few inches past her shoulders. Halfway to the top, she stops beside her grandmother, Jeffrey Neely, a woman whose black, cornrowed hair is pulled back from her face. She has a certain presence, a gentle and timeless power.

"I can't find my skates," Amira declares.

"Where'd you take them off?" asks Neely.

Amira points to the arena's lower level, and her grandmother sends her to get her 7-year-old brother, Amir, to help her find them. Neely has arthritis and can't easily maneuver the steep steps. Her arthritis is one of the reasons she requested her grandchildren be matched with mentors in the Amachi program.

The children's mother was already pregnant with Amira when she became involved with Neely's son. He was "caught around guns," says Neely, and is currently serving time in a federal penitentiary in California; he'll be released in 2011 or 2012.

Neely received custody of the two children six months ago, after their mother abandoned them; the family lives in a housing project. Amira's mentor gives the child exposure to the broader world by taking her to the zoo and to museums. Otherwise, says Neely, "all she'd know is the projects and church." Amir is still waiting to be matched with a mentor.

A Nigerian word that means "only God knows what comes to us in this child," Amachi has more than 240 programs in 48 states affiliated with or inspired by the private/public nonprofit headed nationally by former Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode. The Memphis program has served more than 300 children, with 287 in current matches and 82 others waiting for mentors.

Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner George Little arranged a presentation at a statewide meeting of wardens to introduce the program. Now, during their orientation, all prisoners view a FedEx-produced video about Amachi. Its message is clear.

"The prisoners realize," Bailey says, "that when they do time, their entire family does time. They say if there had been a program like Amachi when they were young, they probably wouldn't be where they are. So they see this as a gift."

"I'm not going in there!"

The organization's staff, however, approached the concept with considerable misgivings. When Kimberly Davis first realized that to recruit children, she would have to go into prisons to get referrals from the parents, her response was, "Are you kidding?! I'm not going in there!"

But soon, she says, employees ventured forth in a small group. "At first, we were glued to each other," she recalls. "But what you realize is that [the inmates] are people. They've made mistakes. And we tell them, 'You know, these same mistakes are out there for your kids. And if you've been in here 10 or 20 years, let me tell you something, it's 10 times worse than it was when you were out there. You don't want this for your children. I don't want this for your children.'"

And many prisoners respond. Perhaps that's because instead of telling inmates what to do, the Amachi representatives ask what they need. "People have always said to them, 'Do this, do that,'" says Davis. "But we go in and say, 'What is it that your child needs help with?' And we let them direct us in the relationship."

These days the prison trips aren't necessary. Inmates pass the word about Amachi -- along with Davis' cell phone number. "I'll get calls at 4 a.m.," she says.

Contrary to expectations, based on images of women as primary caretakers and men as deadbeat dads who don't know where their children are, the Amachi team has found that more fathers than mothers refer their children to the program. Some of the men express initial hesitation about another man being around their children's mother. Some parents are concerned about being displaced. But Davis and others in the program clarify by explaining that the mentor is there to listen to the child, to provide opportunities, to help them make positive decisions, not to replace their real parents.

"You can be successful no matter where you come from."

Essence was excited about seeing so many of her cousins at the Amachi skating party. Yet what are the chances for any of these kids -- all with parents who've come up against the law -- of becoming healthy, productive adults? In its 2006 report, the Urban Child Institute stated that one of every six households in Shelby County is in a neighborhood where social disorder -- defined as public drinking, drug use, prostitution, panhandling, and loitering -- presents special challenges for parents.

Susan George, an Amachi program director, grew up in a North Memphis community where the typical female had six or seven babies, where the typical male was a gang member, where murder was not uncommon. "I came from very humble beginnings," George says, "but my dad was there, my mom was there, also older brothers and aunts. The stories we hear from a lot of these children, they don't have that. Not one person."

Because George was blessed with a strong support structure, she wants to help give that to others. "I can let them see that there is a way that you can grow up and you can be successful no matter where you come from," she says. "I was the exception. And I want to make children who live in those poor areas understand that each one of them can be an exception too."

Life for many of the Amachi children is far from comfortable, as Davis and George have witnessed. One family they visited lived in two rooms. With no room for beds, they only had mattresses. Every morning, they would stack them in a pile that reached nearly to the ceiling and every night at bedtime, they'd pull them back out. Another family lived in a house where the middle of the kitchen floor had fallen in, so they had to walk around the edges of the room to avoid the giant hole.

They say that many inmates, accustomed to living in poverty, have learned not to ask for what they need. The children reflect that attitude. They often feel that the breakdown of their family is somehow their fault. It shows in the interviews the case managers conduct. "These children come in here -- 7, 8, 9 years old. They are like old people," Bailey explains. "They are just burdened. They feel a great, great deal of guilt. Their childhoods have been taken from them."

"I've got my son back."

Rev. Donald Johnson, pastor of Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church, watches proudly as Jovante, the second child he has mentored in Amachi, flies across the skating rink. "He's a major skater," Johnson says with a smile. A father of four, pastor of his church, and team chaplain to the Memphis Grizzlies basketball team, he prudently declined to join the 10-year-old on the ice.

He and 25 others volunteered as an Amachi mentor when a BB/BS employee made a presentation at his church. Clark arranged his initial meeting with Jovante in the church gym, a neutral place where both could feel comfortable.

"We connected right away," Johnson relates. "I could see immediately that he was a good kid. Jovante does well in school. He's well-versed in the Bible. He comes from a good home. My job is to bring balance to his life."

Of course, he takes Jovante to basketball games. "With all that the Grizzlies have," he says, "they still face challenges. And it helps Jovante to see that."

Oak Grove Missionary Baptist is one of 27 churches partnering with the local Amachi program. Because Amachi case managers are aware of the needs of volunteers as well as children, they ask volunteers for their preferences regarding the age and race of the child and the parts of town where they would be most comfortable. A frequent response is, "I don't care. I just want to help."

Following the standards and procedures that BB/BS has developed, Amachi case managers interview volunteers, run back-ground checks, and provide training before matching them with children. Mentors make a minimum one-year commitment to see the child at least twice a month with weekly phone calls. Consistency of contact and follow-through with agreements are crucial to the success of the program.

Sometimes, it's only through evaluations sent out by the case managers that the mentors learn that they are making a difference in children's lives. The evaluations gauge how far the child has come since the beginning of the match, as the mentor works to ease such barriers as anger and lack of trust and to help the child with academic performance or other problems they face.

And feedback often means a lot to the mentors. Take for instance the young college student, working two jobs, who didn't think he was accomplishing much in his weekly visits. That was until the child's mother called Davis of BB/BS and told her, "I've got my son back. He's smiling again." The mentor, upon hearing this, broke down in tears.

"I believe in forgiveness."

Few Amachi mentors face an easy task as the world in which many kids live seems to get uglier.

"Look at these babies in kindergarten," says Davis. "They're fighting teachers, getting suspended. What do you do with a 5-year-old who's been suspended? What's he going to do? What pattern of behavior do you think he's going to continue if nothing is done for him? Adults are looking at them and deciding, 'You're not going to be anything.' And the kid's really angry because his father's in jail."

Reaching the heart of such a child requires time, commitment, and, most importantly, the willingness to ask the question, "What is it that you like to do?" As Davis explains it, "In this child's life, it's always been about somebody else. Today, the mentor tells him, 'It's about you.' And that's what we're looking for. More people to tell these children: 'It's just about you.'"

That's exactly how mentor Tammy Brigham approaches her relationship with Essence, who lives with her mother and three siblings, two of whom also have mentors, and stays with her grandmother during the week while her mother works. Brigham's focus and attention are geared only to the child. What her father did to land in prison is no reflection upon her.

A stylishly dressed, single, and childless woman employed in federal government, Brigham has been a Big Sister for about eight years, and an Amachi mentor to Essence for nine months. She doesn't know why the child's father went to jail.

"It doesn't come up in conversation," she says. "I believe in forgiveness. And I believe in putting the past behind you and moving forward."

She believes her relationship with Essence will be a long one. "Essence is a sweet girl. We'll be together until she turns 17, 18, hopefully. She's sincere."

She's generous, too. When Brigham gave her a bike for Christmas, before she knew her aunts were also giving her one, Essence was willing to spread the cheer.

"My brother doesn't have a bike," she pipes up. "So I let him ride one of mine."

Looking back at the start of their friendship, Brigham recalls, "When I first met Essence, she was real quiet. She never did say much. But now, it's totally different."

And so are Essence's chances. Remember, Amachi means "Only God knows what comes to us in this child." 

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