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Mentors strengthen resiliency of prisoner's children

Known for its thrift stores, Goodwill Industries transforms 85 percent of funds from the stores into programs that serve ex-offenders, job seekers, individuals with disabilities, youth and children.

Goodwill mentors children of prisoners
Katherine Showalter

Its Mentoring Children of Promise program matches children whose parents are in state or federal prisons with volunteer adult mentors committed to strengthening their mentee’s resiliency.

“These children’s lives are often in chaos,” said Katherine Showalter, mentor specialist.

“Children experience abandonment and may fear for their own safety and the safety of their parents in prison.  They may worry that their caregiver will disappear.  They may feel shame or stigmatization, which could lead to anger or inappropriate behavior.”

Katherine dispels the myth that “the apple does not fall far from the tree.”  That is not true if a child has choices, she said.

Whether children are from poor to affluent homes or live with grandparents, mothers or other relatives, mentoring can intervene so the children break from statistical patterns.

In June 2006, the Washington Department of Corrections reported there were 4,217 children with one or both parents in prison.

“Statistics show that 70 percent of them will be in the criminal justice system—in trouble with the law—and 60 percent will be incarcerated,” said Katherine.

“When children are mentored, they are 52 percent less likely to skip school and engage is risky behaviors that may lead to crime,” she said.  “The more positive people children have in their lives, the better their relationships are with peers, parents, teachers and caregivers.  It gives them hope.”

Katherine told of a boy whose sister was matched with a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters.  He was not.  His shoulders sagged and he was hunched when he first entered the Mentoring Children of Promise program.  Now he sits up straight and smiles.

Mentoring Children of Promise (MCP) recruits, processes, interviews, does background checks, trains and facilitates matches of mentors and children.

It follows Big Brothers Big Sisters “best practices” and training, adding practices to address criminal influence, abandonment and drug or alcohol abuse.

Its three-hour training includes policies, procedures, relationship-building skills, development stages, activity suggestions, and understanding of psychological and emotional effects of incarceration, said Katherine, who became involved through AmeriCorps.

Mentoring Children of Promise is in the third year of a three-year federal grant awarded to Educational Service District 100.  Goodwill Industries of the Inland Northwest is subcontracted to do mentoring, matching support, recruiting children and training mentors.  The grant ends in July, but she hopes it will be renewed.

Other Goodwill staff involved in the program are Amanda Guthmueller, MCP program coordinator, and Oscar Harris, mentee specialist.

They match children quickly, continually recruiting and training new mentors.

Schools, the Department of Corrections, food banks and community agencies send referrals.  It’s sometimes hard to find children of prisoners, because families may move elsewhere, just as prisoners’ families from elsewhere move here.

Now, 40 of 52 children are in mentor relationships and 12 are being matched. Children range from four to 15 years old.

Mentoring Children of Promise follows the Amachi Program, a national program started by Philadelphia’s former mayor, Wilson Goode.  “Amachi” is a Nigerian word that means “who knows but what God has brought us through this child.”

In Amachi, congregations contract to provide mentors, a volunteer coordinator, monthly reports, financial support, activity ideas and church activities.

Three congregations are involved—Opportunity Christian, with three volunteers, First Presbyterian with three and Unity Center of North Spokane with five. MCP seeks more churches.

MCP also recruits mentors at college service learning fairs.  

Mentors make a one-year commitment to give at least six hours of face-to-face a month with weekly contact that may include emails, phone or cards.

“One mother has seen a 180-degree turnaround in her son, who was skipping school.  His grades are up.  His hygiene and self-esteem have improved,” said Katherine, whose interest in children started  while taking in 29 children over 11 years as a foster parent when she and her husband lived in Colville.

Volunteering at the Columbia River Christian Academy in Kettle Falls to help with special education children piqued her interest in education.  She and her husband moved to Nine Mile and then Spokane so she could go to college.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in teaching at Eastern Washington University, she did substitute teaching for eight years.  Then she became the mentor recruiter under AmeriCorps.

Katherine, who grew up in an Assembly of God church, attended Suncrest Family Church in Nine Mile and now visits various churches in Spokane.

“I want to see these children’s lives changed.  I know change comes from a relationship with God, but we ask mentors to respect the beliefs of mentees and their families,” she said.  “Even though we are not overt about faith, we can make a difference in children’s lives.”

“We can change not only individual lives, but generations,” Katherine said.

“A parent, teacher, grandparent, mentor, coach or others can help a child resist peer pressure and temptations that come through media, peers and gangs,” she said.  “The relationship means they let pressures slide off, so they make good decisions. You can’t have too many people loving you.”

She said mentors are not to “fix” children, but to add one more positive dimension to their lives.  Children often take responsibility for their parents’ actions, believing if they are good, their parent will be good.  Mentors help them understand they are not responsible for their parents’ decisions.

“Mentoring gives mentors a chance to experience life from a child’s point of view,” she said. “One said, ‘I met a mini-me.’”

In addition to MCP, Goodwill Industries of the Inland Northwest offers other programs.

• Community Gateway helps released offenders, because those who have jobs, a place to live and ties with family are less likely to re-offend.

• Planning Action for Youth  Success helps youth aged 17 to 21 overcome barriers to employment from disability, homelessness, pregnancy, parenting, foster care, low income and low academic skills.

• Workforce Development provides job training and placement, helping people discern interests and skills by placing them for up to 30 days in various work sites to evaluate their computer skills, customer service skills and work readiness.

• Goodwill provides childcare for 72 children from the community in its ABC Discovery Center in its headquarters.

Once Goodwill operated only as a sheltered workshop for handicapped and mentally retarded people to repair items to sell in its thrift shops.  Since the late 1980s, it has emphasized services that enable people with disabilities to obtain jobs in the community to help them become self-sufficient.

Goodwill, one of 200 members of Goodwill Industries International, employs 600 people in 17 sites from Wenatchee to Lewiston, Sandpoint to Moses Lake.  They serve 2,800 people a year.

For information, call 444-4313.


Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © May 2007