Program for children with incarcerated parents loses funding

Saving Amachi: Program for children with incarcerated parents loses funding

By April Wilkerson

[ August 4, 2011 – OKLAHOMA CITY ] Byrona Maule’s first match in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program still fills her with memories and tears.

The young girl – Maule’s “little sister” in the program – lived with her father because her mother was in prison. Like any child with a parent in prison, the stigma the girl faced added an extra burden to the stresses of simply being an adolescent. Maule took her under her wing, doing simple activities with her like shopping and swimming, but more importantly, serving as a positive presence, especially important in her mother’s absence.

The girl grew up, her feet on sure ground. One day Maule got a call. Her “little sister” was getting married, so she traveled to the wedding. After the traditional father-daughter dance, the father came to get Maule, telling her that she was next because she was the one who helped his daughter transform into a healthy young woman.

“For me, it was 18 to 20 months out of my life that I spent with this young lady, but it was everything to her because it helped her in time to be a young, responsible adult,” Maule said. “That’s really what the program is about.”

Now the specific program behind such matches is in jeopardy. The Amachi program – the Big-Little match for youths who have at least one parent incarcerated – has lost its federal funding through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a casualty of budget woes.

Oklahoma’s $1.6 million federal grant for Amachi runs out Sept. 30, said Sharla Owens, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma. That amount is about 18 percent of the agency’s budget for 2012-2013. Without it, no more Amachi matches could be made, she said, and nine or 10 jobs could be lost.

The agency is serving 600 young people through Amachi in Oklahoma, Owens said, but that’s just scratching the surface of the need, and 200 more are on a waiting list. Children with incarcerated parents aren’t just at-risk; they’re high-risk, with a much higher likelihood of going to prison one day themselves, she said. Oklahoma is particularly in need of a program like Amachi because of its status of incarcerating more women than any other state. But one-on-one mentoring has proved to be an effective deterrent, she said.

Maule has since served as a Big Sister to two other girls, and she and her husband, Marvin Meyer, are now a “Big Couple” to Quinton, a 13-year-old they hope to mentor until he graduates from high school. All matches are fruitful, but children in the Amachi program are particularly vulnerable and in need of positive role models, she said.

“Their lives have changed, not because of anything they did,” she said. “Having an incarcerated parent carries a stigma with it on top of everything else. They’re fragile children.” To raise money for Amachi, Owens said Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma moved up its annual giving campaign from the end of the calendar year to the middle. It also created a new giving society, and it is approaching foundations and individuals for support, Owens said.

“These kids are going to find mentors, one way or the other,” Owens said. “It is our job to make sure it’s a positive one. We’ve got a generation of kids out there who, through no fault of their own, are in extremely challenging situations, and it’s our responsibility to step up and do something about it.”