March 3, 2006

SSA aids kids with jailed moms

A group of Social Service Administration (SSA) students convened Wednesday for the first meeting on their “Family Stories” project, a program picked up by SSA students to link incarcerated mothers to their children. The project aims to increase literary interest in a demographic group often identified as “underachievers” in educational pursuits.

Students selected a book for each child after evaluating surveys completed by mothers on their child’s interests and reading level. The books were provided by Companions Journeying Together Inc., a prison ministry that reaches out to incarcerated women and men through programming.

Julia Sitko, a first-year student at the SSA, organized the meeting as the first step in initiating a “social justice” project with the help of fellow students and an interfaith prison ministry.

“We feel that these are women who have made mistakes,” Sitko said. “But they are women and children whose chances for improved lives and for normalcy have much to do with the maintenance of their bonds with each other during this difficult time.”

Karen Hutt, a pastor acting as liaison to Companions Journeying Together, told the students at the meeting that sensitivity to the mothers’ prolonged separation is important to consider when interacting with the children.

Hutt is also working with other schools such as Northwestern University, Wright College, and Elmhurst College in the Family Stories project. Hutt said she works with college students because she wants “future policymakers” to be involved in the initiative.

Hutt also encouraged descriptions of college life in the hopes that the children will be inspired to pursue higher education.

“This is the optimistic population,” said Hutt, referring to the SSA students’ positive attitudes. Hutt said she hopes the optimism would spread to the children in the program.

Sitko cited her long-held interest in prison reform issues as her reason for initiating the collaboration with Hutt.

“I believe that our prison system is punitive and not rehabilitative,” Sitko said. She acknowledged that some SSA student groups are active, but called for more partnerships with community organizations like Companions Journeying Together.

One hundred women from the Dwight Women’s Correctional Facility of Illinois will participate in the Family Stories project. To encourage continued correspondence for everyone involved in the program, the children will receive envelopes and stationery to write back to the SSA students as well as their mothers in prison. After writing to SSA students about the books they have read, the children will receive certificates and small gifts as rewards for their achievements.

Hutt explained that the addition of a stamped and addressed letter to the mother might make a difference in promoting contact between the children and their mothers. She reflected on a case in which one mother received the first communication from her child in two years, a connection Hutt said was made possible through this kind of program.

Sitko expressed her devotion to continuing the project and planning follow-up meetings.

“By no means is this [effort] closed,” Sitko said, adding that she welcomed any support from her fellow graduate students or students in the College. Sitko said she anticipates the need for book drives in the future but that she hopes for campus support once the project officially launches in the next few weeks.