Special Delivery: OK Messages Project Serving Children of Incarcerated Parents
Guest post by Cheri Fuller, Executive Director
(See Video on Home Page of children watching their moms’ DVDs)
When a four-year-old boy’s mom was put in prison, he was scared she was in a cage all day and night. Until he got the package with his mommy’s DVD and a Dr. Seuss book she read. Then he saw she was safe and not in a cage, and when he missed her he put the video in and read along—feeling like she was there with him.
A teenager said, “I hadn’t seen my mom in two years after she was arrested. I was lonely and lost; I didn’t have goals or motivation. After we got our book and mom’s video, we knew she hadn’t forgotten my brother and me and still loved us.”
When parents go to prison, their children suffer in multiple ways. As one said, “The first time my father went to jail, it felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest and thrown in the road. I worried about him constantly.”
In Oklahoma, due to having the highest incarceration rate for women/mothers in the U.S. and 4th highest for men/dads, tens of thousands of children’s lives are devastated when they lose a parent to prison.
Separation from a parent is traumatic for any child, but when caused by prison, it’s even more difficult. Children whose parents are behind bars are at increased risk for depression, anxiety, withdrawal, delinquency, substance abuse, and behavior and school problems, including school failure. They often suffer the loss of their friends, their school, pets, and even their homes as they are shuttled off to be raised by grandparents or relatives.
Studies show to support these children, their #1 need is to stay connected to their parents throughout the incarceration, and #2 is for more parent-child activities using technology when in-person visits aren’t possible. The reality is that in-person visits can be upsetting to children, subjecting them to additional trauma. However, in Oklahoma, few children get to travel to prisons to see their moms or dads.
Our mission at OK Messages Project is to serve children of incarcerated parents with a literacy and prevention program and Outdoor Adventure Days. The Messages Project keeps the vital connection between parent and child, reduces kids’ anxiety and sadness, improves their outcomes—and most of all gives them hope. Our teams go to prisons three times a year to coach and film parents reading bedtime stories and sharing personal, loving messages—we mail the DVDs and books read on video to the children.
Because of this program, many children will get to read along with bedtime stories with their parents each night. Seeing and hearing their parents say, “I love you. I’m proud of you. This isn’t your fault. I’m safe” reduces their anxiety and sadness, boosts the self-esteem of 78% of the kids participating; 88% have a better bond with their parents in prison and caregivers. For 72% of children, their reading improves. Like Jacie, (9), who last March was doing poorly in reading. When she got her book Frozen and her video of dad reading it, she read along every night before bedtime. In November, Jacie was awarded “Best Reader in the School” for her elementary school. Reading along with parents has a powerful impact on students’ reading, even via video.
Our nonprofit brought the national model of the Messages Project (www.themessagesproject.org) from Virginia in 2011 and launched it in Oklahoma in May of that year.
In five years, we’ve served over 5,500 children in our state. Last year, we had 44 days of filming at 18 prisons, and sent books and DVDs to 1145 kids. Visit okmessages.org to donate, to find out more, and to see our video of the children on the Home Page.
MCCBD’s mission is, and will always be, to get diversity children’s books into the hands of young readers. It is especially important for kids to be able to “see themselves” in the pages of a book, but family reading time is also a critical piece of this literacy puzzle.
MCCBD has had the honor of working with several important non-profits who share a similar vision and one such organization is the Oklahoma Messages Project. Thanks to the outreach of OK Messages Project Director, Cheri Fuller, MCCBD donated a big box of multicultural books for children and their incarcerated parents to create memories with. Read the full article HERE.