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Somebody to Lean On program gives guidance to children of inmates

Traci Shurley, Staff Writer
Star-Telegram

ARLINGTON — The odds are against kids like 10-year-old Andra Lemmons Hicks.

With his father in a Texas prison, the Metro Charter Academy fifth-grader is more likely to have trouble in school, turn to drugs or end up incarcerated, studies say.

But grandmother Brenda Hicks and other family members don't plan to let that happen.

And because of the statewide initiative Amachi Texas, another adult is also looking out for Andra.

Modeled after a program in Philadelphia, Amachi Texas is using a $3.7 million state grant to pair children like Andra with adult mentors through Big Brothers Big Sisters. By spending a few hours a week with the children, the volunteers will have a positive influence on them, giving them attention they might not get at home and encouraging them to strive for success, organizers say.

Management for the new program is housed in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Texas office on 205 W. Main St. in Arlington. This year, about 500 matches have been made statewide. Another 500 pairs of mentors and kids are expected to sign up by August 2007, officials said.

Prison officials hope the Amachi volunteers will become a vital part of the support system of inmates' families.

"What they do is, they say to the child, 'Look, you don't have to end up doing the same thing your parent has done just because they're your parent, but that doesn't mean you can't love them,'" said Christina Melton Crain, chairwoman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which oversees the prison system.

Up to 320,000 children in Texas have a parent or other family member behind bars, Amachi officials said.

Mentoring one of those children seemed like a great idea to Philip Feick, a 36-year-old auto finance professional from Euless who is single and does not have any children.

"I got signed up because it's something I've wanted to do for a long, long time, and this was the right opportunity," said Feick, who was assigned to be Andra's Big Brother in July.

Over basketball games and rounds of miniature golf, the two have built a friendship that Andra easily sums up.

They "go do fun stuff," he says.

Creating a model

Texas prison officials were already running a variety of family- and child-oriented programs for inmates, even before state leaders learned about the Amachi program in 2004, said Crain, a lawyer who represents abused and neglected children.

In late summer 2004, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice started an Amachi pilot program in the Hutchins State Jail in southern Dallas County. It was a success, and funding for the large-scale project soon followed, Crain said.

Amachi Texas began receiving funds in January, and the $3.7 million grant will last 20 months. It pays for volunteer recruiters and matching consultants and helps pay for the costs the program shares with Big Brothers Big Sisters offices throughout the state.

Amachi Texas Executive Director Olivia Eudaly said prison officials' enthusiasm and the strength of the Big Brothers Big Sisters programs in Texas are a powerful combination.

"It's the opportunity to create a model across the entire state that is replicable in other states in the country," she said. "It's the opportunity to take what we learn and show the nation that it works."

One of the biggest challenges is getting the word out to those who need services, officials said.

Representatives from Big Brothers Big Sisters have gone to prisons throughout the state and explained the program to inmates.

Many of those mothers and fathers have reacted enthusiastically to the message, contacting their child's caregiver about Amachi, Eudaly said.

In other cases, it's the caregiver in the community who realizes their grandchild or child needs a friend.

Amachi volunteers must go through interviews, pass a criminal background and reference check, and complete three hours of special training in addition to the normal training provided to Big Brothers Big Sisters mentors, Eudaly said.

For instance, volunteers in the Amachi program learn how to react when children want to talk about their incarcerated parents.

A bond forms quickly

Andra had lived primarily with his father, Timothy Lemmons, until his incarceration three years ago. Brenda Hicks, Andra's grandmother, said she noticed a change in her grandson not long after his father was sent to prison on a drug charge. Andra still got good grades but seemed down, she said.

"He misses his daddy very much," said Hicks, who shares her central Arlington apartment with Andra, his 17-year-old sister and his mother, Bernadette Hicks.

At Metro Charter Academy, founded by Mount Olive Baptist Church in Arlington, Andra's favorite subject is math, and he dreams of someday playing professional basketball. His favorite team is the Houston Rockets; his favorite player is Tracy McGrady.

Andra is quiet with strangers, but Feick, who signed up for Amachi after a representative visited his church, Metroplex Chapel in Euless, said it didn't take long for him and Andra to bond.

Over the last few months, they've hit baseballs at batting cages, gone swimming and been to the arcade.

Feick also hopes to get Andra involved in his church, and the two recently went to a fish fry there.

Feick said the two "can talk about anything," including Andra's father and his release from prison in February.

"I just rely on God's guidance to talk about things with him," Feick said. "It's really been amazing how we've just hit it off."

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As many as 320,000 children in Texas have a parent or other relative behind bars.

In the Know

How to get involved

Amachi Texas

Call Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Texas at (817) 277-1148 or visit www.amachi-texas.org.

Children 6 to 15 who have a parent or other family member in prison or on probation or parole are eligible.

Volunteers must be at least a senior in high school, have no criminal record, submit a character reference and be willing to spend at least four hours a month with the child.

MATCH program

Camp Fire USA First Texas Council in Fort Worth also has a mentoring program for the children of inmates. To learn more about the Mentors and Adolescents Together Creating Hope, or MATCH, program, call (817) 831-2111.

Background

Amachi Texas is a joint project of the governor's office, the OneStar Foundation, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Texas.

Amachi is Nigerian for "who knows but what God has brought us through this child," according to Amachi founders.

The original program, in Philadelphia, started in 2000 and worked with local churches and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeastern Pennsylvania, said the Rev. W. Wilson Goode Sr., the director of the program and a former mayor of Philadelphia. By 2003, the group had more than 500 mentors.

President Bush announced the creation of a federal Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program in 2003. It has awarded more than $158 million in grants to programs across the country.

Traci Shurley, (817) 548-5494 tshurley@star-telegram.com