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GO KIDS Articles

Mentoring group gets a boost from firefighters

Francesca Jarosz, Staff
American-Statesman
Thursday, November 02, 2006

Mike Higgins hears stories from his daughter that haunt him.

Higgins' daughter is a pre-kindergarten teacher who has two students whose parents are in prison. She sometimes returns from school crying after hearing about their problems at home.

So Higgins, the Texas State Association of Firefighters chief of staff, is looking forward to making an impact of his own.

On Wednesday, Higgins and other members of the association agreed to volunteer with Amachi Texas, a state-funded nonprofit group, to mentor children with incarcerated parents through Big Brothers Big Sisters.

"I see the need," said Higgins, who collects toiletries from hotels for his daughter's students because they don't have them at home.

About 400,000 children in Texas have parents in prison, said Olivia Eudaly, executive director for Amachi Texas. Of those, Eudaly said, 70 percent will also end up in prison if no one takes steps to intervene. The Amachi mentoring program began in Philadelphia in 2000 as a collaborative effort between a University of Pennsylvania professor who came up with the idea and a former Philadelphia mayor who got it off the ground. It launched in Texas in March and now involves 11 agencies statewide, among them Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas, which is responsible for pairing children with mentors in the Austin, Waco and College Station areas.

Amachi is a Nigerian word that means "who knows what God has brought us through this child?"

"We don't just give away 70 percent of children and say, well, too bad," Eudaly said.

Of 111 Amachi programs across the country, Amachi Texas is the only one that operates statewide. In January, the program received $3 million from the state to pair kids with mentors and promote the organization, Eudaly said. Amachi has matched more than 400 kids with mentors and aims to make 1,300 matches by the end of August.

About 150 of those matches were made in Central Texas, said Kenny Taylor, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas. Taylor said he hopes to increase that number to about 330 by the end of August.

The firefighters association is Amachi's first professional group of mentoring partners. Eudaly calls it a "dream team" because firefighters are community leaders whom kids view as role models. Muna Walker, a senior program officer with Amachi in Philadelphia, said partnering with firefighters will also boost the number of male mentors, of which there is a nationwide shortage.

Higgins said the association will encourage its 13,701 members to participate. About 2,000 members are in the Austin area, and Taylor said he hopes to get at least 100 local firefighters involved in the program.

"This is another way we can reach out to the citizens," Higgins said.

How to help

To get involved with the Amachi mentoring program, contact Melanie Chasteen, director of marketing at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Texas, at 472-5437 or melanie@bbbscentraltx.org.