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Helping Children of Prisoners Thrive

By Mary Ellen Kennedy, 2010 ALVA Graduate

Mary Ellen Kennedy participated in the Evolve program (then called ALVA Leadership Development) in 2009–2010. She took her years of experience as a teacher and applied it to help children in a new way.

My ALVA project sought to better the lives of children who have an incarcerated parent and to provide support for the children’s mentors through a Big Brothers Big Sisters’ program. These children often have emotional or behavioral problems, may experience feelings of shame or stigma, and may show poor academic performance. They are often exposed to more risk factors than other children. These children are likely to experience fear, worry, confusion, deep sadness, guilt, isolation, and/or embarrassment. Anger often underlies all of these feelings.

After looking into organizations that are working on the issue in the Twin Cities, I discovered that Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) has a great program called Mentoring Children of Prisoners (MCOP). It matches adult mentors with children.I decided to do my work within the BBBS infrastructure.

I’m working with the MCOP program to set up activities to enrich the children’s experiences and to deepen their mentoring relationships. So far we have held a scrap booking event, a game and question-and-answer session with former Viking player Randall McDaniel, swimming at a YMCA, and horseback riding. My next step will be to set up a list of books at different reading levels about feelings, emotions, and problems that the children face and to develop a journal for the children to use with their mentors.

My project grew out of the impetus that the class provided to look at my life—my interests, skills, values, talents, and experiences—and to understand what I am passionate about. The ALVA class gave me a structured way to plan, implement, and evaluate the project. I also learned about leadership, brain development as we age, the impact of the social and political environment on public work, ways to network, methods to present ideas effectively, and other factors important to effective leadership.

ALVA helped me to establish a purpose for this part of my life and gave me the confidence to accomplish something that is exciting and meaningful to me and beneficial to others. It has been an excellent and be worthwhile experience for me.

Here are some statistics for reference:

  • 1.7 million
    Number of minor children in the U.S. who have a parent in prison
  • 25%
    Percentage of the 1.7 childrenwith a parent in prison who are under age five
  • 15,000
    Number of children in Minnesota who have a parent who is incarcerated
  • 20%
    Percentage of children in Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities who are in the MCOP (Mentoring Children of Prisoners) Program

Source: “Families with Incarcerated Parents Fact Sheet,” Minnesota Fathers and Families Network, Britney Rosenau, M.P.H. candidate, Univ. of Minn., Maternal & Child Health, for compiling this fact sheet, Feb. 2010.



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