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Breaking Patterns

Older Mentors Guide Children Of Prisoners

June 5, 2005
By REGINE LABOSSIERE, Courant Staff Writer

Isaiah is 10, excels at math and enjoys sports and ice cream.

But because his stepfather served time, Isaiah is statistically more likely than other children to end up in prison too, according to some studies.

Sitting on the sofa in his family's home in Hartford, Isaiah remembered what his stepfather, Guy Williams, told him when he returned home a year ago from an 18-month stint in prison.

"He said it's a bad place to be," Isaiah recounted.

Isaiah's mother, Audra Boyd-Williams, is taking advantage of a program designed to ensure that her son will not stray down the wrong path.

He and about 65 other children in Greater Hartford are part of COMET, the Coalition of Mentoring Excellence Team. Under the program, older mentors who act as role models are paired with youngsters who have had a parent or guardian incarcerated.

Isaiah said his life before meeting his mentor was pretty boring. He was stuck inside his apartment with his mother, three sisters and brother, or outside playing with friends in the neighborhood.

Then Harold Wolliston came along.

Boyd-Williams said her son has become attached to Wolliston in the year they've spent together. He is the father of two who devotes most of his time to work, church and family.

"If he calls and Harold doesn't pick up the phone ... Houston, we have a problem," Boyd-Williams said with a laugh. "Isaiah adores Harold."

Wolliston heard about COMET through his church, First Church of the Living God, in Hartford. Boyd-Williams heard about it through her husband, who learned about it in prison.

"[Guy] initiated it but the idea sounded really nice to me," Boyd-Williams said. "They need to be exposed to different things. ... Because I have five children, it's hard for me to organize everything."

The Boyd-Williams household in Hartford's North End now has three COMET mentors working with the family.

"They are positive role models," Boyd-Williams said.

Making A Connection

COMET is a partnership between the Greater Hartford Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, Families in Crisis Inc. and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.

The alliance of churches recruits members to become Big Brothers or Big Sisters, while Families in Crisis goes to prisons, schools and state agencies to find parents who would like to enroll their children in the program. Nutmeg connects the children with the mentors and oversees the program's daily operations.

The Child Welfare League of America, a federal resource center for children of prisoners, says research suggests that children of incarcerated parents may be three to six times more likely to exhibit violent or serious delinquent behavior than other children, said Arlene Lee, director of the Washington-based group.

The Rev. Himie-Budu Shannon, outgoing president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, said that people and organizations working together can have an impact on children's lives.

"We believe that, jointly, we can make a difference," Shannon said. "United we stand, divided we fall. If the church can partner with [nonprofit groups], we can definitely put a dent in juvenile delinquency.

COMET costs about $300,000 a year to run. The federal Department of Health and Human Services, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the Connecticut Health Foundation and the Greater Hartford Jaycees fund the program.

It is modeled after the Amachi program, started in Philadelphia in 2000. Amachi is a West African word that means "Who knows but what God has brought us through this child." Amachi has spread throughout the country through Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Laura Green, executive director of Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, wanted to create a local program based on the Amachi model because of the 4,000 to 6,000 children in Greater Hartford who have a parent in jail.

"We're building jails now to house the children of current prisoners," Green said.

COMET was conceived in September 2003 and began operating in May 2004. One year later, Nutmeg officials say they don't yet have concrete data to determine how successful the program has been, but that they are encouraged by anecdotal evidence.

"From the stories that we've heard, it's been very worthwhile," Green said.

A "Big," as the Big Brothers and Big Sisters are known, is expected to spend a minimum of eight to 10 hours with his or her assigned child every month.

"They have fun. We encourage them to do what they would normally do," said Damian Humphrey, program director for COMET.

Humphrey said the Bigs take their charges to museums, roller rinks, movies and parties, or simply bring them home to spend a day with the Big's families. Humphrey said children of incarcerated parents need special attention because of the stigma surrounding prison.

"As a child, you always see your parent as good, but you have a good parent who's in jail. You are torn between society telling you your parent is bad [and] your feeling your parent is good," Green said. Some of the children in the program have already gotten into trouble with the police, she said.

"These children are more at risk than the children we would normally serve," Green said. "Not only are they low-income, unstable families, but they have more emotional baggage."

Isaiah is one of the luckier children in the program, said Brian Kelly, a spokesman for the Nutmeg program. Isaiah lives with his mother and stepfather, and his biological father participates in his life.

"The majority of the boys have maternal support to varying degrees - mothers, aunts, grandmothers - and very little male support. The same holds true with girls in the COMET program," Kelly said.

A Slow Process

Wolliston, who has two young daughters and lives in Windsor, said getting to know Isaiah was a slow process.

"I think he was a little apprehensive at first. He wasn't very conversational. We began to go out more and more often and he opened up," Wolliston said. "We're buddies right now."

Wolliston and Isaiah talk about sports, including Isaiah's favorite team, the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.

"It's fun, and when we go out we go to different places that I've never been," Isaiah said.

Wolliston, who is a store manager at the Goodyear Tire and Auto Center in West Hartford, also is learning from the experience.

"I've got two girls, so here I have the responsibility of having almost like a son now. Sometimes I try to refer back to that many many moons ago, as far as, `What did I do at his age?' But it's like I'm also learning myself all over again."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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