By Lisa Flam – TODAY.com contributor
Summer camp behind bars: Program connects kids, incarcerated dads
Children and their fathers spends their days doing arts and crafts together at three prisons in the U.S.
When Sharon sent her son to summer camp, it changed his life.
That happens to a lot of kids. But 13-year-old Damar went to camp at a medium-security prison in Ohio where his father was serving time for a drug conviction. Being together strengthened their relationship and left him with a more positive view of his father, Sharon says.
“My son was a little more open to his dad,” says Sharon, 53. “They were able to bond and talk the father-son type of talk, because he really looked up to his father. He was disappointed the way things worked out but he still loved him.”
The program was so meaningful for the family that it inspired Sharon and her son, who asked that their full names not be used, to become counselors for the Father to Child Summer Camp which was started in 2000 by Hope House, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that works to keep kids connected to their incarcerated fathers.
“I saw the impact that it had on my son’s life and I just felt the need to give back,” said Sharon, who works at camp while on vacation from her contract job with the federal government.
Talking with his dad at prison about what happened to land him there was an eye-opener for Damar, now 24.
“It shined a light on a lot of things,” says Damar, who graduated from college last year and works in sales. “From then on, I thought the world isn’t perfect. I have to be ready for that.
“It inspired me to think deeper into life and think about the things I need to do to keep myself on the right path, and when I have my kids, I want to be around to enjoy them,” he said.
Damar, who became a counselor at 16, also wanted to help kids who are longing for their dads as he was, and he shares his story with campers.
“My experience helps me be a good counselor because I can relate,” he said. “It’s a thing of empathy.”
In its 12 years, Washington D.C.-based Hope House has hosted these camps all over the country. Currently, two camps are set up in Maryland and a third in North Carolina, in prisons that range from low to maximum security. Hope House’s offerings, the organization says, are the first of their kind. Kids ages 9 to 14 spend their days with their dads in the prison gym or visiting room. Together, they dance, drum and make murals and create things like a family crest. At night, the kids and counselors sleep at an off-site facility.
The camp was a comfortable place for Damar, who was at first ashamed of his father’s incarceration, Sharon said.
“Being around Hope House kids, everybody had one thing in common,” Sharon said. “You could feel free to be you.”
As the only current counselors who have children who attended camp, Sharon, and another counselor, Brenda, have a special understanding of what the children are going through.
For the past decade, these mom-counselors have seen the happiness in their charges and sometimes the hurt and fear as well. They know what it’s like for the campers who have felt shame or been teased at school.
Above all, they know that these children just want to be with their fathers and feel their love.
“These kids, they want to have a dad on the outside,” Sharon says. “They want to be loved. They want that completed family.”
Miss Sharon and Miss Brenda, as they are called, are moms-away-from-home for the campers, some making their first trip to a prison or going to see a man they barely know.
“We’ve been there,” Sharon says. “We’ve seen the hurt in our kids and we know these kids hurt and they long to be loved by their dad. I could relate to these children. I can give them a hug and kind of take them under my wing.
“I don’t try to explain their dad’s life to them,” she continues. “But I could just be there to answer questions for them and assure them that things are going to be OK.”
The two women “bring a lot to the conversation,” says Hope House founder Carol Fennelly.
“They both have successfully raised children who are dealing with the loss of a father to incarceration,” Fennelly says.
Since her daughter attended camp at about age 13, Brenda, whose last name is being withheld to protect her privacy, has become Hope House’s full-time family outreach coordinator, tracking down families whose fathers have applied for camp and inviting the kids to the camp at no cost.
She saw how the camp and other Hope House programs kept her daughter close with her father while he was in prison. Her daughter, now 25, is married with children and has a good relationship with her dad, Brenda says.
To help other families stay close, Brenda does whatever it takes, like banging on a family’s door, to get reluctant moms to allow their kids the chance at camp. And at camp, she’s there for the kids to lean on.
“I’m just a mother and that’s just my mother love,” says Brenda, 48. “I know what these babies go through because I’ve walked in these shoes. I traveled that road, so I know exactly where these babies need love.”
This article can be viewed on the MSNBC website here.