Program gives kids of incarcerated parents new hope
BY GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer
Thursday, October 04, 2012
10/04/12 at 7:34 AM
Michelle Young was in seventh grade when she woke up and her parents were gone.
They had been arrested for drug use after she and her two younger siblings went to bed. Officers didn't realize children were asleep on the premises.
It wasn't the first time they had been arrested. That happened during her fifth-grade year. But this came with a prison sentence.
"I knew I had to take care of my brother and sister, but my grandmother was always there for us," Young said. "I kept mostly to myself and didn't talk a lot."
They moved in with her grandmother, who helped find them mentoring programs including New Hope, which provides after-school and summer camp programs for children of incarcerated parents.
"It helps to understand you aren't the only person out dealing with this," said the 18-year-old. "There are other people out there, we just have to reach out and find them. They have the same problems you do and people don't judge you."
In recent years, New Hope has ramped up to serve at least 400 children in its programs and continues to get requests for enrollment.
With Oklahoma ranked No. 1 in the incarceration rate of women and No. 3 in men, it is estimated about 26,000 Oklahoma children on any given day have a parent in prison, said executive director Stacie Wilson.
"We have seen an increase in our need for services and are serving more students," Wilson said. "We are providing opportunities and experiences that they may not otherwise have. It is amazing the relationship building that goes on here. They trust each other and stick together."
Various social science studies point to an uphill battle facing children of incarcerated parents, showing them more likely to suffer from low grades, high dropout rates, behavioral problems, more criminal activity and early sexual experiences.
New Hope's mission is to intervene in generational issues and level the playing field for children with parents in prison.
The after-school and community-based programs are designed with a different aspect each day: support group, arts and sciences and physical activities.
The programs are held at downtown's Trinity Episcopal Church, Mark Twain Elementary, Eugene Field Elementary, Kendall-Whittier Elementary and Emerson Elementary and Rhodes Elementary in Broken Arrow.
Wilson said 80 percent of New Hope students say they feel able to say no when asked to do something wrong or dangerous and 83 percent make more positive decisions. She said many are living below the poverty level.
"Many of the children of New Hope have been forced into a life that lacks the security of basic needs," Wilson said. "Through programs that provide tools and opportunities for success, these children have a much higher rate of breaking the generational cycle not only of incarceration but many of them poverty."
'A safe place'
During the support groups, students are divided into groups by gender and age. In the teen girl session last week, talk turned to boys.
A 16-year-old girl brought up how she likes having a boyfriend but broke up with one the day before.
"I respect my morals and values, and I wouldn't give it up to him," she said. "He wanted to do too much with me. It was a good break-up, and he wants to be my friend still."
The girls nodded their heads.
"Don't be too close of a friend," warned Berincya Littlejohn-Taylor, the facilitator for the group. "Sometimes, it doesn't always work out so well. You need to get to know yourself."
The girls have familiarity among them, with inside jokes about siblings or shared experiences.
"We address things in a very honest way," Wilson said. "There are things that are going on in their lives they can talk about, and we can offer positive solutions. This is a safe place to come and know it's OK to be in the situation they are in."
Students come from across the city, including private, magnet, suburban and charter schools.
Tshaka Rivers, managing director of programs, said emotional growth among the students is inspiring.
"They are getting something here they can't get anywhere else," Rivers said. "I've seen children get a sense of hope and future for themselves."
Rivers, 32, gets teary as he talks about the graduates of the program. Their journeys remind him of his own.
Growing up in Florida, Rivers had a father in prison.
"I never felt like I belonged," he said. "I had a lot of strikes going against me, and people treated me different and didn't expect much of me. I didn't have a New Hope or anything like it."
Rivers said something "clicked" for him as a high school junior and he earned a music scholarship to Langston University, where he graduated with a degree in music appreciation.
He moved to Tulsa with his wife and started teaching at a middle school. After working part time for New Hope, he decided to become a full-time staffer.
"The children here know why they are here, and they feel comfortable bringing up things no one would think to bring up with them," Rivers said.
'Only person going through this'
A partnership with the YMCA gives children access to a gym where they also learn about healthy living.
Young said she prefers using an elliptical machine with a goal of being in shape for her senior prom this year.
She is a student at Hale High School with straight A's, enrollment in Advanced Placement classes and plans to enroll at the University of Oklahoma to become a nurse.
She said she has watched her parents struggle with substance abuse addiction her entire life. Her mother is out of prison and has custody of her children.
"My mom pushes me to do my best and doesn't want me to become what she became," Young said.
She said the summer camps are her favorite, which feature a variety of outdoor activities, from horseback riding to backpacking.
"Without New Hope, I would probably have had trouble," she said.
"I felt like I was the only person going through this until I got here."
Original Print Headline: Kids of parents in prison given hope
Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376
Michelle Young, 18, works out at the Hutcherson YMCA in Tulsa last week. She is a participant in New Hope, a program that offers support for children with parents who are incarcerated. JAMES GIBBARD/Tulsa World