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Group aims to have mentors help kids whose parents are imprisoned

San Antonio Express-News
April 25, 2006

Rose Balderas remembers when her son Isaiah was full of aggression, fueled by circumstances out of his control.

Her family was recovering from the death of a premature baby. And Isaiah's relationship with his father was strained and grew more so after the dad, the only male figure in his life, was imprisoned two years ago.

Adults bombarded him with "Don't cry, be strong, you're the man now," and "Look out for your mom."

At age 8, it was a tall order to take on the responsibility of caring for his mother and a little sister.

Balderas, 30, watched and worried as Isaiah's grades slipped. School administrators told her he was depressed and angry, and she knew it was from worrying about her.

Big Brothers, Big Sisters

The program began in 1904 in New York City when a clerk of the Court of Special Sessions asked for a man to volunteer to be a mentor, 'the big brother,' of a boy facing an 18-month stay in reform school.

Fifty-two percent of youths paired with a Big Brother or Big Sister after a year are less likely to skip school; 37 percent are less likely to skip a class.

Studies show that 2 million children nationwide have a parent who is incarcerated.

Then a television commercial — Big Brothers, Big Sisters of South Texas looking for adult volunteers and children in need of mentors — made a difference.

The nonprofit group partnered with the state and a local judge to help San Antonio youths such as Isaiah. The goal is to have the child who has a parent in prison avoid following in that person's footsteps.

Now children with parents behind bars have another opportunity, with $3.78 million in state funding for the start of Amachi Texas, a statewide mentoring program for Texas children.

The program is sponsored by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the governor's office, One Star Foundation and Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Texas.

A former Philadelphia mayor, the Rev. Dr. Wilson Goode, founded Amachi, a Nigerian word that translates into "Who knows what God has brought us through this child."

Its mission is to stop the cycle of crime from one generation to another by forming relationships between children of imprisoned parents and adult mentors.

Experts say a male influence is crucial for boys like Isaiah.

A study notes that nationally a whopping 40 percent of boys are being raised without their biological fathers. Another study found that high school dropout rates rise significantly for boys when their dads aren't around.

Balderas said Marcus Hughes, Isaiah's "Big Brother," has become a member of the family.

"He's somebody positive," Balderas said of Hughes, a systems administrator at Randolph AFB. "He told him it's OK to be a guy and show emotions. He showed him it's all right to be yourself."

Increasingly, mentors like Hughes are being credited for showing boys that there are alternatives.

"In a lot of ways it changes you in ways you didn't expect," said Hughes, 39. "It teaches you about yourself."

The duo spend three to four hours together every Saturday, playing video games, going to the movies or just hanging out. During the fall, Hughes paces the sideline, watching Isaiah practice football.

Later, he passes on lessons that Isaiah can apply to life. Hughes taught the youngster that football isn't about being a star, but being ready to play.

"In one day," Balderas said, "and a couple of hours they absorb so much."

Judge Linda Penn noted that Big Brothers, Big Sisters can have that type of impact in a child's life. That's one reason she created Communities Against Truancy and for Success while on the bench.

The group is one of several vehicles she uses to have mentors help children be successful in school and beyond.

"I'd like to see the children in our community have goals which include graduating from high school first," Penn said. "Then go to secondary education college, technical school or on to entrepreneurial studies. Then they can become productive members of our society."

Melissa Vela-Williamson, representative for Big Brothers, Big Sisters, said Penn is "really the first person in her position to step up."

"She saw a problem and stepped up to respond to the need in her part of town," Vela-Williamson said.

For more information or to volunteer, call Big Brothers, Big Sisters at (210) 225-6322