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No child left alone: Volunteers mentor children of inmates

With 2.3 million inmates behind bars in the US, the goal of volunteers in mentor programs for the 2.7 million children of prisoners is: No child left alone. Despite government cuts in funding, the programs continue.

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In effect, public funding served as seed money for a social service that's now delivered primarily via private partnerships, including religious groups.

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"Normally, you come up with a model and engage the public sector in spreading your interesting model, and it becomes an ongoing area of service," says David Wright, an expert on faith-based initiatives at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York. "To reverse it, the question would be: Who would pick up something that was piloted by the government?"

So far, in this new environment, children of prisoners usually aren't aware that public support for their mentoring has vanished. What they know is that growing up comes with a lot of challenges, especially when Dad or Mom is behind bars. And that their mentors care enough to keep showing up.

Though mentors were all volunteers, MCP funded screening, training, and coordinating matches with mentees. They were often people like Williams: churchgoers who saw mentoring the most vulnerable of children as a God-given mission.

Surviving in environs that sent Dad to prison

On a sunny afternoon last fall, a bullet-riddled Pontiac Grand Am sat like a monument to violence beside an open field at The Estates housing project in New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward. Young children played a game of tug of war nearby, and older kids shot hoops on a court across the street.

"Those [older kids] are the ones we're trying to get mentors for," said Marcia Peterson, executive director of Desire Street Ministries, whose MCP funding was cut.

As four boys waited to get in the game, they talked about their absent fathers: All had either been murdered or incarcerated. And asked if they were fearful of living in this neighborhood, where murder is common, one said, "Not too much," explaining matter-of-factly that the playground is where all the shooting happens at night, and that they live a block away.

For children of prisoners, Priority 1 is often survival in the same environment that drew Mom or Dad into crime. For many, it's an inner-city setting. (New Orleans has 5,000 children of prisoners; Philadelphia, a much larger city, has 30,000.)

In Detroit, for example, mentors from the Progressive National Baptist Convention are given urban hazard training from the start: how to exit a room quickly – as in how to jump out a window.

"It is not the soft kind of 'we're going to go to the movies, stop and have little pop, have a great conversation about your school and your grades.' No, no, no, no," says Dee Dee Coleman, co-chair of the PNBC's Commission on Social Justice and Prison Ministry. "In Detroit, we have some tough stuff we're dealing with every day, and talking about your grades is not one of them."

Helping kids survive and go on to find success, of course, entails more than dodging lines of fire. By showing up consistently, mentors become trusted sounding boards for children when they're frustrated or feeling disrespected, says Stewart Young, who oversees a mentoring program for Catholic Charities of Greater New Orleans.

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