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GO KIDS Articles

Holman: Be important in a child's life

© Austin American-Statesman
October 12, 2006

He seems like a typical sixth-grade student in the Austin Independent School District. He is rambunctious and enjoys playing football and basketball. He spends much of his free time playing video games.

But he worries about much more than the typical concerns of an 11-year-old boy: grades, girls and sports. When asked what he'd want if he could have just one wish, he says, without hesitation, that his dad and older brother would be released from jail.

He is one of the more than 2 million U.S. children younger than 18 who have one or both parents in prison. According to the Travis Community Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting Austin public schools, children of incarcerated parents are five to six times more likely than their peers to go to jail, often before they become adults.

Because of that, TCEF started a program last year called the Mentor Support Program for Children of Incarcerated Parents. It began in four elementary schools and one middle school, and has expanded this year to 10 elementary schools and five middle schools.

Sari Waxler, the organization's executive director, said her goal is to have 150 mentors this year: 10 per school at 15 schools.

Though the organization is more than halfway to reaching its goal, it still needs mentors, especially men.

"It is very important for young boys and teenage boys to have male role models," Waxler said. "Male mentors bring very special gifts to children that sadly are often missing in their lives, especially in the lives of children who have a parent — often the father — in prison."

She said mentors tend to request elementary school children, leaving a shortage for those in middle school.

"Sometimes, people are a bit intimidated by the older children, but they are just that — children," Waxler said. "The middle years are a great time to positively influence a developing child."

Children are desperate to connect with those around them, whether a positive role model or not, she said. "Children are what we call 'hard-wired to connect,' " Waxler said. "That means that they will find connections with others if we as adults don't connect with them. Sadly, the connections they find without our help are too often poor role models or sometimes leaders in gangs."

Mentors are required to meet with their child 30 to 45 minutes once a week at the child's school. They are not allowed to leave the school grounds with the child without permission. Mentors are asked to commit to the entire school year so that trust can be established with the student.

By maintaining a dependable relationship with the child, the mentor is able to provide counsel, friendship, guidance and encouragement, which can positively impact the student's academic and social achievement.

The future of many children could be determined by the decisions they make in the next five years. In the emotional, turbulent preteen and teenage years, having a stable, supportive role model could make all the difference.

Holman, who lives in Austin, participates in the mentoring program. For information about it or to volunteer, contact Sari Waxler at swaxlertcef@austin.rr.com or (512) 323-6371.