SEEDLING: Program matches mentors with children of incarcerated parents

By Anita Miller

Imagine you are a child whose parent does not come home one day. Bad as that is, it happens for a variety of reasons. But imagine that reason is because the parent is in jail and likely bound for prison.

Immediately, your household is run by a single parent even if it wasn’t before. Immediately, your family’s income takes a big hit. Immediately, your academic success is jeopardized. Soon if not immediately, you realize the separation is lengthy, and perhaps begin to blame yourself, as often happens with divorce. Maybe, you never really recover physically or emotionally. Finally, how do you manage that alone, much less in the midst of a pandemic, when grandparents and other extended family members are unavailable?

That’s the fertile ground upon which the Seedling Foundation has grown.

For 15 years, Seedling has been matching children of incarcerated parents with adult mentors in Central Texas school districts including Hays CISD.

Currently the program is meeting the needs of students at three Hays elementaries and one middle school, all located in Kyle.

Along with the parent who winds up on the wrong side of the law, their children “endure the punishment,” explained Seedling Executive Director Dan Leal. “Abrupt separation impacts children,” he said. “Kids are not prepared.”

Mentors meet with children for an hour once a week, “usually over lunch so it doesn’t interrupt family life,” Leal explains. In this age of COVID-19 the meetings are virtual. Qualifications for mentors, who are currently being sought to address a growing need, are simple. “Be a good listener. Talk about activities you mutually enjoy.”

Leal said volunteer mentors undergo training, and then are matched according to mutual interests like sports, music or reading.” They don’t talk about the parent’s incarceration unless the child bring it up, Leal says. “Enjoyable things over time build relationships. The child may open up over time.”

Though the average length of mentorship is about two years, there are incentives for more lengthy pairings. “Seedling’s goal is to keep the student with the same adult until they graduate,” explained Charlotte Winkelmann, director of Guidance and Counseling for the school district and a person instrumental in identifying which student are in need of help

The program also raises money for scholarships, she said. Short of full tuition, the scholarships an supply necessary things like books for the college bound. “If a student is in the program, no matter what age or grade, they can apply for a scholarship.”

Both Leal and Winkelmann noted that students with a parent behind bars feel a sense of abandonment on top of confusion. “They don’t really understand. They love their parent and don’t really understand why they’ve been taken away. Sometimes families keep the truth hidden in an attempt to protect them,” Leal said.

Like most else in life, the coronavirus only makes things worse. Kids may not know if their parent is health or, in the case of a parent in prison, “they don’t even know sometimes if their parent is alive for extended periods of time,” he noted.

Leal stressed that while commitment is crucial, mentors don’t need to have a lot of special skills, just a desire to help the child.

“You need to show up each week. You need to be able to care. We don’t want people to think that they have to be problem solvers. Just show up and listen, care and abide by our goals.”

It’s often a mutually beneficial relationship, something that’s been proven multiple times over the foundation’s nine-year association with the district.

Leal said at the present time, students in the program are 68 percent Hispanic and 19 percent African American. Many others identify as multi-racial.

Those interested in becoming a mentor can fill out an online application at seedlingmentors.org.

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