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Children of Texas inmates need brotherly influence

By Bob Ray Sanders, Staff Writer
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
September 4, 2005

Until a year ago, 12-year-old Jamar Gipson of Arlington had not seen his father for 11 years.

Jamar and his twin sister were only 3 months old when their dad was sent to prison for life on a murder conviction.

Thanks to a "big brother," Jamar has made the trip to the East Texas penitentiary three more times since that first visit, and he writes to his father a lot -- trying to cheer him up and give him hope.

Wiser than his young years would suggest, he told me the other day that his father is behind bars because "he was kind of young and not thinking at the time. If he had come to his senses, he would not be out there now."

Unfortunately, this young lad's situation is not unique.

"Jamar is one of 70,000 children in North Texas with at least one parent in jail," said Charles Pierson, chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Texas and Jamar's big brother.

"Seventy percent of children with a parent in jail will also go to jail unless we as a society step in."

Pierson stepped into Jamar's life two years after his first little brother, with whom he had been paired for 10 years, graduated from high school.

The North Texas chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters, which was organized two years ago with the merging of the Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington chapters, began to focus on the children of incarcerated parents after Pierson heard a presentation by former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode about this growing need.

"I was so moved," he said. "I came back and said we ought to be a leader in doing that."

Big Brothers Big Sisters has officially started a program called "Amachi -- People of Faith Mentoring Children of Promise," which pairs kids of incarcerated parents with caring adults.

Pierson naturally understands the positive impact on a child when there is a role model actively involved in his or her life.

He notes that some area schools have dropout rates of 40 percent, but "94 percent of kids with big brothers and sisters graduate."

The idea is not for a big brother or sister to become a parent, he said, "but a special friend -- an advocate, teacher, counselor."

For Jamar, Pierson has been all those things.

"He's a very good person. A very good person," Jamar said of Pierson. "It's like he can do anything."

Jamar is a seventh-grader at Workman Junior High School, which he proudly calls "the best junior high in Arlington." He has dreams of being a star in the National Basketball Association or becoming "the best real estate person the world has ever known."

I have no doubt that this kid will be a success, and his mother, Erica Gipson, credits much of his enthusiasm and confidence to his involvement with Pierson and the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

But for every Jamar, there are hundreds more who will not get help and encouragement because there simply aren't enough big brothers and sisters to go around.

Since its merger two years ago, Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Texas has increased its funding and substantially increased (by 32 percent) the number of "matches" it has made between mentors and at-risk youth.

Sadly, despite that dramatic jump in kids being served, there has been a 40 percent increase in the number of youngsters on the waiting list for one-on-one mentoring through the program.

The organization needs more adult volunteers who are willing to give 240 minutes a month to a youth in our community.

"Four hours a month can change a child's life forever," Pierson said.

Although some people believe that one has to be a Mother Teresa or a Martin Luther King to be an effective mentor, Pierson said the program is simply looking for caring adults and their families who will share a little of their lives with a child.

Pierson, who didn't have children of his own when he first became a big brother, now has two kids, ages 5 and 22 months, who are very much a part of Jamar's life.

Last month, Jamar went to church with the family, Pierson said.

"My son, Carl, who's 22 months, adores Jamar," he said. "He sits in Jamar's lap -- not mine."

All through the service, the child was constantly hugging and kissing Jamar, a scene that brought tears to the woman sitting behind them.

"It was a joy to watch," the woman told the Piersons after the service.

We do have the ability to touch lives. And by touching lives, we can help change them.

That's exactly what Big Brothers Big Sisters is doing.