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Features - Posted April 24, 2015 9:20 a.m.
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photo by Heather Ladd

Breaking the Cycle: Panhandle Promise Project gives hope to children of the incarcerated

Editor’s note: Names of minors in this article have been changed to protect their identity.

Trevor is 17 years old. He lives in Amarillo and enters his senior year of high school next year. The teenage years can be difficult for most kids, but Trevor’s has been especially tough. For one thing, he has no idea where his father is. He couldn’t tell you where the man lives, what he does, or even if he’s alive. In fact, Trevor suspects his father might have passed away some time ago.

As for Trevor’s mother, she just got released from prison. That’s why Trevor lives with his grandmother, who is ill with diabetes and neuropathy. As a result, he spends much of his time as a caregiver for his younger sisters, who are ages 7 and 5.

“This kid has had a pretty hard hand dealt to him,” says Melisa Martinez, executive director of the Panhandle Promise Project of Amarillo, a non-profit organization that provides a variety of services to children, ages 6 to 18, who have a family member on probation, parole, or incarcerated. Trevor has been involved with Promise Project since he was 9 years old. Despite the challenges of his day-to-day circumstances, Trevor is one of the organization’s success stories.

Kids like him usually get trapped in a generational cycle of incarceration. Promise Project wants to break that cycle.

From summer camps for children whose parents are incarcerated to individual mentoring and monthly group outings, Promise Project invests in the lives of kids like Trevor. According to the Department of Justice, more than 800,000 of the federal and state prisoners in Texas have children younger than age 18. There are 15,000 such minors in the Texas Panhandle, including at least 6,000 attending AISD schools.

Studies show that parental incarceration proves far more damaging to a child than other parenting changes like divorce. Children whose parents are in jail exhibit a greater degree of antisocial behavior, more frequent mental health disorders, and higher probabilities of drug abuse. They are more likely to fail in school or drop out altogether. They are more likely to struggle to find a job or maintain employment.

Furthermore, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to live in poverty, experience household instability, and are predisposed to criminal activity. Nationwide, half of these children are younger than 10 years old – just like Trevor’s little sisters.

The staff and volunteers at Promise Project seek to inject hope into these seemingly hopeless statistics.

“You can tell the program has made an impact on this family’s life,” Martinez says of Trevor’s family. Promise Project donors helped provide Christmas dinner for Trevor and his siblings. Other donors are helping pay for his class ring and graduation robe. Trevor’s mentor set him up with lawn-mowing jobs so he could earn money to support his family, and Martinez has been helping him complete college applications.

“It has given him some kind of hope to hold onto and taught him different ways [to approach life] than what was shown before in his family,” she says.

Like poverty, incarceration is rarely a generational anomaly. It tends to be cyclical. Kids experience it in their homes, learn it from family members or caregivers, and rarely find their way out of it. “They feel like it’s going to happen to them, too,” Martinez says about a child’s prospects of being incarcerated. “It’s a hopeless feeling. It’s more than just their parents, too – it might be the whole family. It becomes the norm. They seem to grow up thinking, ‘I’m doing this because Dad has done this. We’ll try not to get caught, but if we do, it’s just what happens.’”

Promise Project grew out of Happy Camp, a summer camp introduced by the Episcopal Church of Northwest Texas in the early 1990s. The annual camp gave at-risk children an opportunity to get out of their daily environment and enjoy a carefree camp experience – a rarity given their economic and family situations. In 2005, the diocese added Promise Camp to focus specifically on children whose parents were incarcerated.

By 2011, the camp’s leadership had realized that a one-week camp experience wasn’t enough to truly help these kids. Led by St. Andrews deacon Todd Baxley, who had been the camp director, Promise Project applied to become a 501c3 organization and separated itself from the Episcopal Church.

“Most people have the attitude of ‘You do the crime, you serve the time,’” explains Baxley, now a member of Promise Project’s board. “But it’s the children we’re worried about. We don’t want them having to serve for something their parents have done.” Many of these disadvantaged children already suffer from discrimination. They are predominately minorities. They come from broken homes. They live in poverty. Their parents’ choices add fuel to the fire. “Anything that makes children different serves as a springboard for discrimination, especially when a mother or father is in prison,” says Baxley.

Expanding beyond the week at camp, Promise Project added monthly outings, engaging kids in fun activities like back-to-school pizza parties at Gatti’s Pizza, October trips to Maxwell’s Pumpkin Farm, and visits to Skate Plex. This month, Martinez will take more than two dozen kids to Amarillo Rock Climbing House. “These [outings] give them a chance to get out and do something they typically wouldn’t be able to afford,” Martinez says. “We try to stay as local as possible and support local businesses. We want to show kids what is out in their community.”

The organization’s deepest investment in participants’ lives, however, comes from its mentoring program. Promise Project pairs each member with a community volunteer who commits to meeting with him or her once or twice a week. “Our main goal is to provide stability and a positive influence when Mom or Grandma work so hard to provide income they don’t get a chance to help with homework or go to football games,” Martinez says. “That way, [the kids] have a person to turn to when decisions are placed in front of them. We want it to be a positive, nurturing relationship.”

Martinez first connected with Promise Project while earning a master’s degree in social work from West Texas A&M University. As a result, the organization still works closely with WT graduate students, including current mentor Lisa Zesati, an Amarillo Area CASA visitation coordinator who is also interning with Promise Project while completing her master’s degree. She has been paired with Ben, who is 10 years old. Ben’s father was just released from prison but hasn’t made any contact with his son. Ben lives with his mom and three step-siblings.

On a regular schedule, Zesati treats Ben to lunch or dinner, takes him to a local park to expend some energy and talk, and helps him with homework. “He doesn’t have that many positive role models in his life,” she says. Zesati tries to be “that person who is consistently pushing him forward and telling him everything is going to be OK.” Like many in his situation, Ben struggles with anger issues. It took some time before he would engage with Zesati, but slowly he has begun to drop his tough façade and open up.

She says most people might quickly categorize Ben as a bad kid. While it’s true that many children of incarcerated parents exhibit behavioral problems, those actions are often a symptom of their environment. “It’s not that they want to misbehave, it’s just that that’s the only way they know how to act out and express themselves,” she says. “They don’t know another way to do it – not until they get that connection with a mentor or parent or friend where they can just calm down and be themselves.”

“That kind of regular contact is really important,” says Mary Emeny, a long-time Amarillo philanthropist and member of Promise Project’s board. While Promise Camp might give kids a weeklong break from their environment, true transformation requires more frequent investment through mentoring. “If we’re going to help people break the cycle [of incarceration], it’s got to be real, year-round help – not one-shot or Band-Aid help.”

Board member Brian Weis, M.D. has worked closely with incarcerated parents and their families through his medical career at Northwest Texas Hospital, where this summer he will begin serving as chief medical officer. He says removing a child from a stressful home life, whether during a week at Promise Camp or through time with a mentor, often becomes a catalyst for changes in their behavior.

“Sometimes people think of them as angry or frustrated kids, but what you find when you put them in the right environment is they have a lot of fun and work well together,” he says. “They are very open and loving kids when given the opportunities. We know that history repeats itself with children of incarcerated parents. But a child given the right experiences can really be put in the right direction to hopefully be a very productive person.”

Children aren’t the only victims of incarceration. The parents left behind while a loved one is imprisoned face trials of their own. It can be extremely isolating for a single mom or grandmother working long hours to earn income and take care of a family while the other parent is in prison. “They don’t choose to be poor,” Martinez says. “They don’t choose for their spouse to go to prison.”

More and more often, such parents are turning to Promise Project for advice. While the organization focuses on children, it ends up building close relationships with parents, too. Martinez hears often from mothers who simply need a friend or a listening ear. She finds that especially gratifying. “When a mom calls me stressed about a father getting out of prison – and being able to help walk them through that – is more rewarding than I would’ve ever imagined,” she says.

Looking forward, Emeny says the organization plans to expand its model to more formally include parents as well as their children. “One thing we’d definitely like to do is become a greater support to the parents and caregivers of these kids,” she says. “They tell us, ‘We want camp, too!’” During its annual summer camp in 2015, Promise Project will offer a single-day retreat for caregivers, giving them the opportunity to learn parenting strategies as well as get away from the difficulties of their lives.

Despite that immediate expansion, Emeny expects that Promise Project will remain small. “To me, the sweetness of this program is that it’s not trying to be everything to everyone,” she says. “It’s trying to be very specific in what it’s doing. It’s not interested in getting huge but being a pilot that other organizations can copy.” She would love to see Promise Project multiply, with small, local versions in towns throughout the Panhandle, or even from school to school in Amarillo.

If that happens, it will only make communities stronger, Baxley says. Helping these children break the cycle of poverty and incarceration resonates beyond just the families themselves. “If we can show them a different route – that there is a better way – and can get them out of that cycle, then society itself is better off,” he says. “You’re taking a person who might someday find themselves in a bad situation, and you’re changing the future for them.”

That has certainly been the case for Trevor, the high school junior and long-time Promise Project member who is now applying for college admission. Martinez says he has developed into a leader. “He will stop and help with the younger kids. I’ve seen his self-esteem rise just with the three years I’ve been working with him. He’s very protective and very encouraging,” she says.

That’s a good sign. The staff and volunteers of Promise Project invest in children like Trevor because they want to see them make better decisions than their incarcerated family members. “We tell them, ‘You don’t have to be on that same path,’” Martinez says. “‘Being behind bars is not what you want to set as a goal.’”

So far, the investment has paid off with Trevor. Rather than repeating his father’s mistakes, this young man is heading in as opposite a direction as anyone could imagine: He dreams of someday becoming a policeman.

Incarceration Facts and Figures
• More than 1 in every 100 U.S. adults are in jail or prison.
• 1.7 million minors in the U.S. have at least one parent in a state or federal prison.
• African-American children are nine times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison. Hispanic children are three times more likely.
• 75 percent of incarcerated women are mothers.
• 63 percent of federal prisoners are parents of children younger than age 18.
• Of the 168,000 people in Texas state and federal prisons, 154,000 are males.
• 512,400 Texans are currently under probation and parole supervision.

Impact of Promise Project
In a recent survey of parents of children involved in Promise Project …
• 98 percent feel their child’s self-esteem has increased since becoming a member.
• 80 percent feel their child’s grades have improved.
• 88 percent say they have seen a difference in their child’s behavior.
• 95 percent feel that the monthly activities have positively influenced their child.

by Jason Boyett

Jason has written more than a dozen books and is the host and creator of “Hey Amarillo”, a local interview podcast. Visit heyamarillo.com and jasonboyett.com.
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