01/24/2012 10:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Miss America's Courage

I've got to give Laura Kaeppeler a lot of credit.

While I'm generally not a fan of beauty pageants, the recently crowned Miss America 2012 showed guts and character in her choice of cause: supporting and mentoring the children of incarcerated parents.

It was a choice that she apparently wrestled long and hard with before making, and an area in which she has personal experience.

Jeff Kaeppeler, her father, served 18 months in prison for mail fraud around the time his daughter was finishing high school. Now that she has won the crown, Kaeppeler will seek to raise the profile and awareness of this all-too-little discussed issue.

Before starting to work at Hoy last March, I worked at The Chicago Reporter for five years.

One of the most powerful projects we did was about the children of incarcerated parents.

Our team did three major projects about this group of kids, who a number of people estimate make up about 2 million of our nation's youth. A disproportionate number are black and Latino. Black children were nine times more likely than their white counterparts to have a parent in prison, while Latino children were three times more likely, we learned.

The first package was based on a survey we did of close to 25 agencies that work with these children. In it we found that there was often little communication between agencies and organizations, with the result being that children of incarcerated parents were often the invisible victims of crime.

Friend and colleague Fernando Diaz wrote about the challenges of transportation for families trying to visit their loved ones. He found a negative correlation between the distance from home where the parent was incarcerated and the number of visits that parent received from family.

Our third project looked at the system from arrest to release, finding that children's needs were addressed in a piecemeal, rather than systematic, fashion.

The work we did, along with activism by members of the Civic Action Network, contributed to legislative hearings at the state level about the subject. I am proud of the journalism we did and of the impact we were able to have. And, for me, one of the most powerful legacies of that work is my reporting memories.

For the first project, my brother Jon and I went to Lincoln Correctional Center with 15 families the Saturday before Christmas 2006. The families were among the more than 200 who had applied to take the trip down south from 87th Street to visit their mothers, sister, aunts and grandmothers for just three hours.

For almost all of these families, this was their Christmas. The reunion took place in a chilly gym. After the hugs and kisses, the families moved upstairs, ate, talked, played volleyball and visited with each other.

For much of the time, anyone observing the parents and their children would have have thought they were anywhere, rather than in the confines of a state prison.

The three hours passed in an instant.

One of the prison officials told the families it was time to go. The women retreated to one side of the volleyball net, while the children and other family members lined up against the wall.

Then the wave came.

The children and mothers waved to each other, feeling like they were getting farther and farther away with each successive movement of the hand.

I wanted to move forward and to ask the mothers what they were feeling, to look at the children's eyes for the tears that I knew had to be forming.

But I couldn't.

Somehow the lump that formed inside me rooted me to the spot.

I had to take a minute to compose myself.

I rode the bus back with Jon and the families, took the Red line home from 87th Street and hugged Dunreith and Aidan tighter than usual when I got there.

I've done a lot of reporting since then, including the third project on that topic, and that day has remained inside me. As Laura Kaeppeler makes her rounds across the country, I'll think of her courage in using her personal struggle to benefit the larger society. I'll also think about the 2 million other children in the same situation.

And I'll think about those mothers in Lincoln Correctional Center, their children and the wave they exchanged.

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