When I first started "PEN Pals Book Club and Support Group for Children of Incarcerated Parents" in October 2007, I had no idea we would be where we are today. I started this project for youth ages 12-19 because my church sponsors a wonderful Christmas celebration with dinner and gifts annually for the children of incarcerated parents yet we did not see them again until the next Christmas. I felt there was a need to do something more for these young people and since no one else was doing anything, I figured maybe I should. The book club has been an awesome experience! We promote literacy as well as exposing them to cultural, social and sporting activities. The members are also taught to pay it forward by performing monthly community service projects.
I looked at the statistics and found there are over 5,600 children of incarcerated parents in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County alone. Often times these are both parents and the children end up with grandparents, other family members or in foster care. They often feel rejected and depressed because of their situation and perform poorly in school. I believe education will help solve some of their problems, increasing their self-confidence and self-esteem. As time progressed, the younger children who came and waited for their family members wanted to know why they couldn't have their own book club. It was about a year and a half later and BE A Reader Book Club and Support Group was established, in February 2009, under the leadership of one of our adult mentors. We knew when we began that not everyone (children and parents) would want people to know they were children of incarcerated parents and we respected that. Today, we have not and never will tell you who is a child of an incarcerated parent and who is not -- no exceptions. We watched with joy as the initial club that started with about 15 members has increased to about 65 members total among both clubs and we are still growing.
The year of 2012 has been phenomenal! We have had some ups and some downs but they have all made us stronger. On October 27, 2012 at 3:00 p.m., PEN Pals & BE A Reader Book Club & Support Groups celebrated the 5th Anniversary of PEN Pals Book Club & Support Group. This event was held at Greenville Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church in Charlotte, North Carolina where the pastor is Dr. Sheldon Shipman. It was a wonderful day!! There were people from the Charlotte community that came by to share what a difference PEN Pals had made in their lives and in the lives of the homeless, the at-risk, the hungry, the forgotten and the less fortunate. There was laughter, tears and hugs. It was a day we shall never forget.
As a special part of our 5th Anniversary celebration, there was a film crew from New York that videotaped this wonderful celebration. We were even more excited because we had a special guest with us that day. It was a father that had been incarcerated for 12 years and he had been released just a few months ago. We met his family following one of our Angel Tree programs when we invited them to come and be a part of us. They did. His wife and boys have been a part of the book club since our beginning. His wife always shares the story of how one day her husband called from prison to say he had just read about this wonderful organization that she and the boys should check out. He told her it was called PEN Pals Book Club and Support Group and they read books and do other stuff. She was elated to tell him they had been invited and had become a part of this group. She told him the group has been wonderful to us and for us. PEN Pals provided Christmas when they would not have had a Christmas. When she tells the boys we have a meeting, they are ready to go. We are grateful for this father. He has paid his debt to our society. After his release from prison, he wanted to put his family back together, to make it right. They renewed their wedding vows in a beautiful ceremony on a sunny Saturday afternoon -- he was dressed in a suit, she in a beautiful one-shoulder dress and the boys dressed, escorting their mother to their father, at the altar and reuniting their family. It was a moment they had waited for. This father attended our anniversary meeting and encouraged the kids to stay out of the streets, to help people and to stay in school. This father expressed a desire to help the homeless so it is a wonderful gift for PEN Pals to be able to assist him in fulfilling his dream, his desire to give back.
We all look forward to the time we spend at the meetings, a little time when you can just relax and have fun, good times that young people should have and a little time to just enjoy life.
This post is part of a series co-produced by The Huffington Post and Points of Light to honor Loreal Paris' Women of Worth initiative. Women of Worth honors incredible women who are making a beautiful difference through their dedication to philanthropy and their passion for improving the world. The 10 women being honored this year were selected from thousands of nominations. Each of the honorees received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oreal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning April 2013, please visit womenofworth.com.