Camp Helps Prisoners’ Kids Cope

Allan Appel PhotoAsked to draw his future, 11-year-old Reginald Coleman showed pictures of the professional football player he wants to be, the model he wants to marry, the shoes he wants to wear—and the prison bars he aims to avoid.

Reg Coleman showed his “dream board” Tuesday at the second-to-last day of a five-week summer camp designed to relieve the stress of kids in the Newhallville/Dixwell neighborhood who have a relative in jail.

Seven girls and six boys ages 11 to 15 read and discussed poems and stories, kept a daily journal, saw movies, and took field trips, at the free, half-day, literacy-and-arts-based camp called “Middle School Reading for Reasoning.” All the kids have a parent or close relative behind bars. Given how young the campers’ are, counselors approached that subject through the array of camp activities.

The camp is headquartered at Dixwell and Argyle at the Believe in Me Corporation (BIMEC) social services agency, which won state funding for the summer camp and its continuation as an after-school program in the fall. BIMEC also runs a food pantry in the neighborhood; read about that here.

With his mother, grandmother, and brother nearby, Reg talked with a reporter about how he misses his dad, who is serving his third sentence in jail. Reg said he misses “playing ball [with his dad], going places, and sleeping at his house.”

On a poster depicting dreams of his future, Reg pasted a photo of a man behind bars. Beneath it he wrote: “I’m going to do what I have to not be in there.”

Reg doesn’t talk as comfortably with classmates at the Wexler-Grant school. “I don’t mention it”  to friends at school, he said.

His grandmother Misty Baez said that the teachers and staff know Reg’s background. “They support him. It’s really good,” she said.

While all the kids at camp have a parent or relative who’s incarcerated and lots of the reading matter dealt with that subject, it by no means dominated the summer, said Aileen Keays.

Keays is a research and policy staffer at Central Connecticut State University’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy (IMRP), which channels the state money for the program and oversees both the BIMEC camp and a larger more psychology-focused initiative at the Clifford Beers Guidance Clinic.

Keays said that for kids of incarcerated parents, “One of the biggest issues is stigma and isolation of talking about it, which can be very harmful. By meeting other kids with similar life challenges, it helps them better deal with the challenges.”

In 2007, 1.7 million children in the U.S. had a parent in prison or jail, and about half of those kids were under 10 years old, according to information supplied by BIMEC.

In addition to the field trips, group meals, and usual camp fun, students learned the principles of Kwanza, the African-based cultural movement.

Reg’s favorite Kwanza principle: Imani. To him that means “having faith in God, in myself, and other people.”

The program aims “to help kids dealing with family incarceration without directly confronting them with the issue,” Keays said.

Students were recruited via visits and flyers at three schools, all in the heart of the Dixwell/Newhallville neighborhood: Jackie Robinson, Wexler Grant, and Lincoln Bassett.

Many of the kids walk to camp and know each other. Khadijah Walker, a 14-year-old, said her favorite part of camp was bonding with other kids and teachers. “They helped me with my anger, controlling my emotions,” she said.

Her mom Ruth Walker concurred. “Her attitude changed. She’s thinking before she reacts. She’s helping more at home, and listening.”

Keays credited state Sen. Toni Harp and state Rep. Toni Walker with launching a 2008 initiative to allocate $500,000 to statewide programs to serve the children of incarcerated parents. In addition to serving the kids, there’s a research component.

Received wisdom is that kids with incarcerated parents have a 7 out of 10 chance to end up behind bars, Keays said. “We’ve found that’s a faulty statistic.”

“If there is a greater chance, it could be a whole host of reasons, poverty, living in a depressed area. IMRP is looking to more accurately determine any increase in likelihood,” Keays said.

Khadijah said she doesn’t feel stigmatized because her grandfather is in jail and she is able to talk about it with kids at school if they ask, as long as they’re “cool.”

And if other kids are in similar situations, she said she was eager to lend a hand. “I can help other people in trouble and let them know it’s never too late to do the right thing,” she said. Her goals in growing up are to become independent and to be a probation officer.

For the shorter term, she wants “to keep my mind straight” so she she can improve on the all B’s and one C she received in school.

Reg, who was carrying his daily journal with him around the room as if it were a constant friend, offered to read a sample. Much of it dealt with thoughts about his father. He said he had talked occasionally with his dad, but had not exchanged letters.

“I miss you so much,” Reg read aloud what he had written, and had shown his mother and grandmother. “Why don’t you send me anything?”

On Friday, to culminate the camp experience, the kids are going to Coco Key Water Park in Waterbury.

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posted by: Miss E on August 27, 2012  6:27am

What an amazingly uplifting and powerful story this is. My hat goes off the BIMEC program and all that it is doing. If anyone has a number or email address for this establishment, I have some teens that would be willing to volunteer there with whatever is needed.