Program mentors youths with imprisoned parents

Wednesday, October 5, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:19 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

If it were not for the help of her mentor, a 15-year-old Columbia girl could be following in her incarcerated mother’s footsteps.

The girl had already been in juvenile detention, and she wasn’t doing well in school. But when she met Carrie Brown, she aspired to do better.

“Sometimes she tries to avoid me,” said Brown, who is also the director of resident services for Columbia Housing Authority. “But she’s a good girl. She’s funny and asks a lot of questions.”

This 15-year-old girl is only one of the 105 Boone County “children of promise” served by Amachi.

Amachi, a Nigerian Ibo word that means “who knows but what God has brought us through this child,” is a faith-based program found in communities nationwide. It was founded in Philadelphia and provides one-on-one mentoring for children of incarcerated parents.

When she wanted to start a local Amachi program in 2003, Georgalu Swoboda, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Missouri, randomly pulled files for 35 children and discovered that 27 of those files belonged to a child who had an incarcerated parent.

Later that year, the Missouri Department of Public Safety gave $39,000 to Big Brothers Big Sisters to start a Columbia branch of the Amachi program for 60 children.

Then in August 2004, the program got a $382,000 federal grant to expand the program to mentor 300 children in 13 Missouri counties.

Finding children for the program is not easy. Swoboda said many of them are referred by a parent or guardian or from social workers, teachers and counselors.

According to the Big Brothers Big Sisters national Web site, children with an incarcerated parent are at a higher risk of going to prison, more prone to violence, delinquent behavior, emotional and behavioral problems and poor performance in school.

There are 1,156 children in Boone County who have at least one incarcerated parent, and 18,000 statewide, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.

“This is a prevention program, and children of an incarcerated parent are statistically seven times as likely to go to prison,” Swoboda said. “We want to stop that.”

Amachi’s aim is to match children with a mentor to help them fill a void in their lives.

“I hope to show that child that there are people who care about you,” said Nathan Stephens, Amachi mentor and Big Brothers Big Sisters special projects coordinator. “I hope to be there and support a child who is missing a part of his life because they have a parent that’s incarcerated.”

Because many children of incarcerated parents may move from one caregiver to another or be separated from siblings, they might have trouble forming positive and meaningful relationships, and thus may have a dismal outlook on life, Stephens said.

The mentor helps improve consistency and stability in these relationships by regularly making visits to the protege’s house.

Swoboda said Amachi tries to recruit mentors from the community who will stay with the child for more than a year.

Brown said although she has been with her protege for about a year, they are still getting to know each other.

“I get excited for her because it is always uncomfortable for people to do something that they normally do not do,” Brown said. “I get a warm feeling when she has adjusted to her new surroundings and feels comfortable.”

The child’s progress is evaluated at the end of the year by the child’s mentor, school teacher and a guardian.

Brown said since she has been with her protege, the girl has shown behavioral and academic improvements and has not been back in juvenile detention. Brown said she is proud of her and hopes to be part of her future.

“When she graduates from high school, I want to be sitting right there,” Brown said. “I’m a black female, she’s a black female and she needs to know black females can be successful.”

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