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COVER STORY: Breaking the cycle: Amachi program gives kids a chance Bill Fentum, Mar 23, 2007
Amachi gives kids whose parents are in prison a better chance at beating the odds themselves
By Bill Fentum Associate Editor
DALLAS -- The Rev. Wilson Goode once visited a prison near Philadelphia where he found a grandfather, his son and a grandson among the inmates. The three told him they had met there for the first time.
"When I left, the grandson told me, 'I have a son that I haven't seen yet. Do you think I'll meet him also in prison?' For a while, I thought this was an anomaly, but it's not."
Just over half (55 percent) of the adults in U.S. state or federal prisons are parents, and about 58 percent of their children are under age 10, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. An estimated 7.3 million children have a parent in prison-and when they grow up, they're six times more likely than other kids to end up in jail themselves.
But that generational cycle is beginning to be broken, thanks to Amachi, a faith-based mentoring program for kids whose parents are in prison. Among its partnering agencies is Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and United Methodist Men.
Amachi derives its name from a word used by the Nigerian Ibo tribe, meaning, "Who knows what God has brought us through this child?" The program, headed by Dr. Goode, matches young children of incarcerated parents with caring adults and is one of 76 organizations that receives grants from the federal Mentoring Children of Prisoners program.
In March 2006, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBS) joined with the General Commission on United Methodist Men (GCUMM) to develop Amachi teams in churches across the country.
Ten United Methodist conferences were chosen to run pilot programs, and their experiences will help shape the partnership's national rollout in the next few years, said Larry Coppock, a GCUMM staff executive.
Dr. Goode, a Baptist minister, has first-hand experience with the need for mentors. At age 14, he moved to Philadelphia from rural North Carolina after his father went to jail for assaulting his mother. A school counselor showed no interest in helping him to plan a career, but a local pastor intervened and became his mentor. At 22, he graduated eighth in his class at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and in the 1980s served two terms as Philadelphia's first black mayor.
"This child of a prison inmate went on to become the mayor of the fourth largest city in the country. Who knows what God can bring through all of these other 'invisible' children?" he told participants at a Feb. 24 celebration of Amachi's work in the North Texas Conference.
"We don't have much time to get this job done -- things are desperate. The folks who build prisons use school drop-out rates to decide how many prisons to build 10 years down the road."
Besides North Texas, pilot conferences in the United Methodist Church include Southwest Texas, Rio Grande, Oklahoma, Kansas West, Pacific-Northwest, Holston, Central Pennsylvania, Detroit and North Central New York.
At Hamilton Park UMC in Dallas, a predominantly African-American church, 13 United Methodist Men signed up as mentors after learning that 44 percent of Texas inmates are African-American, even though African Americans make up only 11 percent of the state's population.
"We decided that when God calls us home and asks us, 'What did you do, knowing the conditions in your community?' -- we would have an answer," said Floyd Jones, the church's UM Men president.
Mr. Jones mentors a 10-year-old boy whose father is in prison, and believes the friendship has blessed his life.
"There's a big age difference between us, but you wouldn't be able to tell it," he said in a phone interview. "We both like sports, we like being outdoors and I'm teaching him how to play golf. I'm praying he'll be successful in life, and we've already decided: Not going to college is not an option."
Age limits for mentors vary by state, but most mentors are at least high school seniors. Big Brothers Big Sisters conducts criminal-background checks and obtains references for all Amachi mentor applicants. Mentors must also complete three hours of specialized training as well as regular BBBS training.
Participating children, ages 6-15, are interviewed to determine their favorite hobbies and interests. Their caregivers apply to BBBS for mentors, and incarcerated parents are kept informed of the mentor-child relationship.
Mentors spend at least an hour each week with their matched children. Among their activities? They volunteer together in community projects, attend sports events, go to movies, play video games or simply talk.
"Anything that you can do to spend time with them is great," said Mr. Coppock, who mentors two Little Brothers. "Just listening to them and being a positive force in their life is really key."
A 1995 study of 1,000 youths helped by Big Brothers Big Sisters showed that 87 percent ended up graduating from high school. Truancy rates were 52 percent lower than for their unmentored peers. Violence and substance abuse also dropped.
"It works," Dr. Goode said. "All it takes is for people of faith to decide that they're going to fulfill God's vision and God's mandate."