08/29/2005 - The middle-aged man and the little boy are having a wonderful afternoon at the movies.
Craig Williams and 8-year-old Tykeem have come to see a kids’ fantasycomedy about robots, and as he gobbles down a box of popcorn, the boy giggles and chortles and cheers. Williams gently admonishes Tykeem when he gets a bit too rambunctious, but Williams, too, enjoys the movie.
After the film is over—and after Tykeem goes through a roll of quarters and then some, playing the arcade games in the lobby and making “please, please, please!” requests for more—Williams takes the boy home . . . where he drops him off and goes on to his own home.
No, this isn’t a divorced father on visiting day with his son or a grandpa on an outing with his grandson. It is high-quality time between a mentor from a “nice” suburban neighborhood and a mentee from a tough inner-city neighborhood. They’ve come together through Amachi Big Brothers Big Sisters, a faith-based program to address the pain and needs of children with parents in prison and the insidious fact that about 70 percent of such children eventually wind up in prison themselves.
Launched in 2000 as Amachi—a West African term meaning “Who knows but what God has brought us through this child?”—the program quickly grew into a larger mentoring program that has nurtured 5,100 children and spread from Philadelphia to 197 cities in 48 states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
Seeing their value, the federal government has given these mentoring-children-ofprisoners programs about $60 million, and the Bush administration has singled them out as well. President Bush referred to the concept in his 2002 State of the Union address and has praised the program as a model of what faith-based and local communities can and should do.
Laura Bush has announced a similar initiative called Helping America’s Youth, which stresses that every child needs a caring adult—a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, teacher, coach or mentor. In connection with that program, President Bush and his wife visited a Washington, D.C., school in April, where they met with four children whose parents have been in prison.
The original idea for Amachi was hatched in the late 1990s by John DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania professor who served as the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and Judy Vredenburgh, the national president of Big Brothers Big Sisters. He had the data, she had the organization.
“All the data I had,” says DiIulio, “indicated that no group in America was more at risk than low-income children of prisoners, especially those in the inner city. On any given day nationally, about two million children have Mom or Dad incarcerated, highly concentrated in urban and poor urban areas. The idea was to target the most needy communities, especially those not being served, and the hope was that this could be done in a way to muster volunteers and gain funding and backing not just from private sources but federal, state and local governments, and done in a way that respected all the prohibitions on excessively entangling church and state.”
The decision to focus on children with parents in prison was a tremendous challenge. They suffer as at-risk children in general, and may also be hurting from the trauma of seeing a parent arrested and led away or from an economic loss that has plunged the family into a struggle for survival.
Indeed, an Amachi study found that these children suffer a host of emotional problems, often with lasting personal and social consequences. They may feel anger, sadness, shame, guilt and depression, which cause them to act out and behave inappropriately, leading to troubles in school and with the law. As the writer Linda Jucovy expressed in a report on Amachi, there is “a particular form of grief and loss that comes from having a parent who is alive but unreachable.”
Amachi also attracted Public/Private Ventures, an influential, Philadelphia based, program-development and evaluation organization, which had been discussing new ventures involving faith-based organizations; and the Trusts, with input on project development and a commitment which over time grew to some $6 million. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America contributed its reputation, expertise, leadership, resources—and on-the-ground services, including staff experienced in screening volunteers, matching them with children and supporting the match during the course of the relationship. Amachi has also gained support from other organizations, such as Americorps/VISTA and the Corporation for National and Community Service.
To get off the drawing board and into operation, Amachi needed someone who could bring churches, pastors and volunteers on board; get the necessary approval from imprisoned parents and guardians (especially difficult in the case of fathers who didn’t actually know the children); help organize screening, training and administration systems; and generally light the fire of faith and determination under all involved.
Enter the Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode Sr.
Goode’s entire career seems to have groomed him to head Amachi. He served as Philadelphia’s mayor from 1984 to 1992 and then as a deputy assistant secretary of education in the Clinton administration, while he became an ordained minister and a doctor of ministry. This gave him priceless and unique contacts—and most importantly, credibility—within government and the church community. Even his doctoral dissertation was relevant: (in his words) “how to take churches from the clubhouse to the lighthouse.”
Even more, his life experience was relevant. He had himself been the child of an incarcerated parent, with that painful experience to draw on.
While Goode was growing up in North Carolina, he recounts, “My father was sent to jail when I was 14 for an assault of our landlord. He was in jail for two years, and during that time, my mother, my siblings and I moved from North Carolina to Philadelphia.”
It was a difficult time for the teenager. “I felt that as a result of the absence of a father figure in the house, I was headed in the wrong direction.” Fortunately for him, the family had joined a new church and “the intervention of my pastor and his wife made a difference in my life. Even when my high school counselor was saying, ‘Don’t go to college, get a job in a factory,’ my pastor and his wife insisted I go to college. They even raised money for me to do so.”
As difficult as his own experience was, Goode feels it would be even worse today. “I think that, emotionally, without a father figure, a child today has many more challenges than I had. They need more encouragement, a lot more assistance, a lot more hands-on.”
When the Amachi idea was proposed to him, Goode says, “I was immediately excited. I felt not only was it a call from God, it was an appointment by God.”
Others might have been daunted by the myriad difficulties involved in starting Amachi, but Goode, who became a senior advisor on faithbased initiatives for Public/Private Ventures, embraced his new ministry, overcoming some unusual obstacles.
For instance, when prisoners feared that the program was trying to replace them or would take their children away from them, Goode went directly to the prisons to assure them and get their permission.
To recruit mentors, he went to the churches in the communities where the children live, reasoning that that’s where the inmates come from—and will return to. “The churches are in contact with the issues the children are facing,” he says, calling them an untapped community resource: “There is potential for higher participation.”
When he visits churches, Goode reminds the pastors of the biblical precedent for mentoring: Moses had his father-in-law, Jethro; Paul had Barnabas, as Timothy and Titus had Paul; and the 12 disciples had Jesus.
To congregations, Goode makes use of the biblical journey:
When Joshua stood before the Jordan River, with the wilderness and 40 years of wandering in back of him and the Promised Land in front of him, God spoke to Joshua and said, “Let the priests lead the way.”
So even though it was the rainy season and the Jordan ran deep and impassable in spots, God said to Moses, “Let the priests lead the way with the Ark of the Covenant.”
So the priests, with nothing but faith to guide them, stepped into the Jordan River, and the waters divided and the people left the wilderness and entered the Promised Land.
Not long ago, Goode was preaching to the congregation at the historic, African-American Bethel AME Church in Baltimore, and when he reached this point in his sermon, he leaned forward: “I wonder if there are any priests here to help children leave their wilderness and enter the Promised Land by mentoring them.” He called his audience to join him “in the riverbed” at the front of the church. More than 250 people came and stood with him to be mentors for children of prisoners in their community.
Amachi stipulates that all participating churches sign up at least 10 mentors who would be willing to participate for at least one hour per week for a year. Ministers themselves volunteer, and in some cases “volunteer” members of their flock. The churches must record the activities and outcomes.
Goode began his appeal in the Philadelphia area, where, eventually, 42 churches enlisted in the cause. As federal funding kicked in, he was a catalyst in helping Big Brothers Big Sisters agencies across the country. By the start of this year, there were 246 mentoring-children-of-prisoners programs nationwide.
As the program has grown, so has the recognition and support. In New York State, Sen. Hillary Clinton is on Amachi’s board of advisors, and President Bush has visited Philadelphia several times to meet the mentors and mentees. “I think the President felt this was one particular group of kids that needed a lot of help,” says Harry Wilson, associate commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau in the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.
“The President wants to reach 100,000 kids in three years,” Wilson says. “Dr. Goode is helping people figure out different ways to get into the mentoring world, and we’re happy to help him.”
Wilson cites an anecdote that Goode tells “of a father and his kid living in the same cell, and the son’s son is just coming into prison. Three generations in the same prison. And the youngest says, ‘I have a son, too. I’ve never seen my son, and I expect that I’m going to see my son for the first time in here.’”
But not if Judy Vredenburgh, the national president of Big Brothers Big Sisters, has anything to say about it.
“We were there right from the beginning, when this was just a glimmer in the eye of John [DiIulio] and me,” she notes. It became, however, considerably more than a glimmer after Goode’s successful initial recruitment efforts produced 500 volunteer mentors. “At the time,” Vredenburgh recalls, “our Philadelphia agency was already serving 700 kids. [Adding many more so quickly] was pretty overwhelming— that many qualified volunteers to screen and match with qualified children and then support those matches. We pulled out all the stops.”
One of those who enlisted in the cause was Craig Williams, a 53-year-old suburban Philadelphia banker who, through his church, volunteered to mentor the 8-year-old boy from the inner city named Tykeem. When Williams began meeting Tykeem in January 2003, the boy’s father was in prison. (Williams says he doesn’t know, or want to know, what the father had done.) Tykeem’s father has since been released from prison but hasn’t moved back home.
So Williams, who has two grown children of his own, has continued his relationship with Tykeem, and both seem to be benefiting from it. They not only go to movies but also to restaurants and the playground. Last summer, Williams took the boy to the Jersey Shore—-the first time Tykeem had ever seen the ocean. “During our time together, I make sure we have a good time,” Williams says. “For the most part, he and I just hang out, having a good time.”
Since Williams began mentoring Tykeem, the boy’s teachers say he is doing better in school. “He’s a smart guy—-got a good head on his shoulders,” Williams says. Tykeem lives with his mother, grandmother and uncle; Williams and the family get along well, and the father is okay about Williams’ presence in his son’s life.
Although the boy’s family does its best for Tykeem, Williams says, its circumstances are “modest at best,” and their neighborhood has some pretty mean streets. Williams worries that when Tykeem gets older, he might find himself part of a bad crowd. For that reason, although mentors are required to make only a one-year commitment, Williams hopes he’ll be able to continue indefinitely, adding, “Sometimes I think it would be nice to go to his high school graduation.”
Of course, Williams notes, “I’m not a kid.”
“Yes you are,” says an affectionately teasing Tykeem. On their movie outing, as they walk from the theater to the parking lot, Tykeem wraps Williams in a hug and doesn’t let go.
Not all mentor-mentee relationships go as smoothly, and Amachi’s real test lies some 10 years down the road, when results will show whether the program has broken the cycle of imprisonment. Meanwhile, a report on Amachi in June 2003 issued some preliminary statistics that sounded notes of both encouragement and caution.
The study, conducted by Public/Private Ventures and DiIulio’s Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at Penn, found that the children improved their attitude in school and performed better academically. They were also more self-confident, less likely to start using drugs or alcohol, and had a better “sense of future.”
According to statistics gathered by Big Brothers Big Sisters, of 556 initial mentor-child matches established between April 2001 and March 2003, 56 percent were still active, as were 61 percent of the mentors and 60 percent of the mentees.
The best relationships were built around “fun activities,” including just “hanging out.” Some adults and children discuss school work and, if the children express interest, go to church and participate in activities there.
On the downside, the report noted, 44 percent of matches ended, 30 percent in less than a year, mostly because “parent/guardian did not want relationship to continue” and “incarcerated parent returned and terminated relationship.”
For this reason (although six months of mentoring can help a child), Amachi continually reminds mentors that they are “not surrogate parents” and must not become immersed in the family’s crises, says the Rev. Mark Scott, who worked with DiIulio in the White House and now is the director of mentoring partnerships for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
“No matter what the parent has done, nobody can replace Dad, nobody can replace Mom, even if they [the mentors] want to,” Scott points out, noting that mentors and parents in effect establish a partnership.
That’s the way it has worked for the Wesley family of Minneapolis. Carl Wesley, a nationally known graphic artist, was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment for fatally stabbing a man during a 1997 robbery. At the time, his son, Hector, was a baby, and his wife was pregnant; a girl, Ruby, was born after Wesley was in prison.
To keep in touch with Ruby, now 7, and Hector, 9, Wesley makes and sends them children’s books. Barbara Wesley takes the children to visit their father when she can. But realizing there was a huge void in the children’s lives, the Wesleys approached the Twin Cities Big Brothers Big Sisters, and in 2004 and early this year, both children got mentors.
Barbara Wesley says it’s a godsend. “I think it’s great, and I know the kids just really enjoy spending time with their “bigs,” she says, using the Big Brothers Big Sisters’ “big” and “little” terminology.
The Wesleys hardly live in the “badlands,” but the fact that the children’s father is in prison is no less painful. “I really felt especially for Hector,” Barbara Wesley says. “He has all these guy interests, and I don’t know anything about that stuff. He needed more guy time. I’ve got some brothers and stuff, but people are busy with their own families.”
That’s where the mentoring has come in. Both children say they miss their father, but their mentors make them feel less lonely. “Yeah,” says Ruby, “we went to the mall, we did painting, we made cookies . . . .”
And Hector, who’s already into motorcycles, is thrilled that his mentor has one. “One Friday, we didn’t have school, so we went on a motorcycle ride. And we went to a motorcycle show when it was in town.” Plus, he says, “we go bowling and we do a lot of stuff. Sometimes we just call each other.”
Just call each other. Sounds like so little, but it can be so big.
For more, go to www.amachimentoring.org and www.bigbrothersbigsisters.org.
Marc Schogol is a veteran journalist who loves writing about the better angels of our nature.