Monday, July 7, 2008


As an AmeriCorps volunteer I am not really in the position to buy new clothes, socks, etc. I don’t really mind I am really low key but sometimes when I go to the prison I wear two different socks, they might be a different color or a different style. The prison guards might think it is some new fashion statement but the fact is that the apartment and dryer devour my socks. Sometimes the guard does not make me take off my shoes and I don’t have to worry about the one pink and the one purple sock challenges. My sock dilemma was diminished this past weekend because one of the Amachi kids lost his socks at the water park. He looked like he saw a ghost because he knew his grandmother would be really disappointed. I can’t imagine not working and being able to supply socks to my three grandchildren.

sock picture from

A Salute to Grandmothers

This has been the week of grandmothers it seems. The majority of the Amachi children that I have set up for an interview are being raised by their grandmother. To imagine going through the years of lunch making, early hour waking, shoe tying, kite flying and to know that it all starts again must be overwhelming. The grandmothers this week wouldn’t express that straight out but I could sense it. They acted like it was their duty and they would raise their grandchildren to the best of their ability no questions asked, no matter what. The desperation in their voices was apparent. One grandmother was frustrated that she couldn’t play by the creek with her granddaughter because it just takes too much out of her. Not only were they raising their grandchildren but struggling with disability or in one case helping take care of a diabetic husband on top of all of this. The phenomenon of children being raised by grandparents is not a new concept and is not isolated to the USA. The fact that all over the world this is becoming commonplace is shocking. In sub-Saharan Africa AIDS has done this, in the US even more so than AIDS incarceration has done this.

I can imagine that the children can sometimes suffer in subtle ways. The generational differences might be frustrating. Children often think their parents just don’t understand them and what they are going through but these feeling are illuminated and exasperated with the case of grandparents.

“Mothers most often said their children's grandparents were the care givers (53 percent), compared to 13 percent of the fathers who said their children were
with grandparents.”(

“In the majority of cases, these grandmothers are in need of external support in this inherently demanding endeavor as many are poor and/or infirm and are barely able to care for themselves, yet they are taking on the huge responsibility of raising a second generation of children. Grandparents often become financially vulnerable when they become primary caregivers for their grandchildren. Typically, they do so without any additional income. Further exacerbating this problem, grandparents who are employed may be forced to quit their jobs, reduce their work hours, and/or exhaust their savings in order to cope with their new caregiving responsibilities.” (Minkler & Roe, 1993).

Nashville Shores
BBBS of Middle Tennessee was fortunate enough to take ten children who live in or near the Napier Public Housing area to a water park, Nashville Shores. It was a big hit with the children that they asked when we were going back, hoping my answer was next week. The children really thrived. Water just makes children feel alive and brings out their carefree nature. It has a cleansing affect too, water represents purity, hope, and new beginnings: which I feel Amachi children enjoy a reminder that despite some hardships they are children. One of the mothers told me that there had been a shooting everyday that week in their community and that just really stayed with me. Time with their Big or time at a Big Brothers Big Sisters event give the children the chance to know something different and not succumb to the violence that might plague their community well at least in the case of the children in the Napier area.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Two More Months...

It is strange that pretty soon I will be handing over the torch. August 24th will be my last day of service. We found a new VISTA who will be wonderful. She is already a Big Sister to a little boy in our school based program so she knows our mission.

Today when I was doing some outreach to the community centers I really became excited. I know that they are frequented by children especially during the summer and I could see that the staff were already thinking of children that might be a good fit for the program. Today I also went to one of the public housing offices in Nashville to talk to the director there about BBBS and she was going to present to her residents tonight. I absolutely love community outreach because it is that instant gratification of spreading awareness. Watching the light bulb go on about something that can benefit the community.

I have started to think more seriously about my future as well. I am going to start applying to grad schools so that I can start in the spring. My struggle though is figuring out what exactly I want. I have three areas I am debating between...

Social Work because there is that community interaction and I will be aware of what ails communities and know that I can help and provide suggestions for resources in the community. Also it is a wonderful way to help people who are struggling. Becoming more aware of the challenges that children who have an incarcerated parent experience makes me want to keep giving back to this population.

Education because there is a lot of opportunity to be creative and to inspire. After doing AmeriCorps and delving into the issues of poverty I am better able to deal with what children experience because I have visited homes, talked to parents, and children. Schools are diverse places and I will learn from others which I enjoy. Having the summers off would be a plus to use that time on my other passions.

International Studies (specifically International Human Rights) Ok this might sound random but at the University of Denver they have a major in International Human Rights and I feel like this would grip my soul. On my free time I read about the genocide in Sudan and always revel at the sections in The Economist that talk about injustices in the world. I have always had a profound connection to those throughout the world. I don't know if you know how I feel but sometimes in my life there are times where I am so preoccupied by issues that it is hard to function even. When Hurricane Katrina happened I was just glued to the TV. After doing Periclean Scholars I would discuss the issues of AIDS orphans and women's rights daily. Now with the special children that I am now working with I think about their circumstances all the time.

Y'all have ideas????

I am excited about more of an income again. I was looking at jobs and I would make more than I am now just by doing part time work. Scary, huh??? Especially with concerns about food prices and gas prices I am thankful that I will have the extra security of a bigger check. I am extremelly thankful for the experiences of this last year and really transforming...

I'm doing what I think I was put on this earth to do. And I'm really grateful to have something that I'm passionate about and that I think is profoundly important. (Marian Wright Edelman)

Music City Soul

The Robot

These past few weeks my object has been to find ways to have information all across town about our Amachi program. Last week I connected with the park service to seek permission to have brochure holders with information at all the local community centers (I think about thirty). They are at every corner of town so I have been busy mapquesting all of the sites and I am excited to finish that endeavor. I keep thinking of new places to visit. It is fun how my mentality has changed. I will be watching a movie and realize that child on screen needs a mentor. (the movie is FICTION, Rachel). Or I will be passing a clinic or other important part of a community and wonder if they know about Big Brothers Big Sisters. That is what passion does, take over.

Growing up I knew that children experienced a lot of pain and trauma because my mother was a social worker, but my childhood was pretty carefree. I remember getting together for girl scouts and children telling me “I wish that your mom was my mom,” and that shocked me. My safety was never jeopardized, I always had food to eat and a lot of love. This past year when families open up and honestly give us a glimpse into their lives a lot of pain and struggle come across.

Every once in awhile we receive letters from the inmates about their hopes for their children and what they think about their children receiving a mentor. A father talked about his children and how they are so smart and how he lives for them. He also wrote about how his daughter was taken away for a little while because the child’s mother and he were using drugs. That is overwhelming to me. I feel fortunate to be having this experience because if I go back into the education field I will have a better understanding than many educators of the variety of experiences that can constitute childhood. The epitome of childhood is having the freedom to be a kid and at Kids Club there are definitely those opportunities. Kids Club was this past weekend and was a blast. Music City Soul came out to perform and instruct. They did break dancing…but even more than that. They even had the adults doing the robot and an Egyptian pose. I really appreciate the ability of staff to find some great groups to come in. Sara, a coworker who helps me plan the activities tracked this group down and we have been utilizing their skills a great deal. One of the performers Ronald has had some neat life experiences and articulates himself in a great way to the children. He was talking about the fact that if we have skills, in athletics, in school, etc. that is one thing that, “No one can ever take away from us, no matter what happens.” He asked the children about their talents and they beamed with pride.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


This week for some reason I have heard so much to bear from the inmates and the families. On a rare week I might have more than one visit to a prison and this was one such week. I went to Charles Bass which I go to every Monday and then last night I went to TN Prison for Women. At Charles Bass I had a pretty positive response from the inmates, but one man wanted to talk to me about his situation. I was open to learning more about his children and how we can serve them but what I heard next was scary. I guess more so the dark, distant look in his eyes sealed the deal. He wanted to refer over his niece and nephew and said he didn’t know his sisters number. I told him, “You could give me your mom/their grandmother’s number and I could get their number from her.” I often do this because some of the inmates have lost contact with their children but the grandparents seem to always be able to reach the grandchildren. So the inmate told me, “I don’t know if that would be the best idea, we are not on the best terms. I shot my dad because he was beating my mom.” I feel like there was more to it then that because he also told me that he was spending hundreds of dollars a week on drugs. He also said he has an eight year old child and this inmate was my age.

Then after following up with one of the other referrals from this week I talked to woman about enrolling her children. The children’s incarcerated stepfather had referred the children over. She told me about her struggles of being disabled and how her brother was killed five years ago and how her mother’s house just burned down. Luckily the children can be exposed to the model of one-to-one mentoring and strive for big things. Poverty weaves its way into every aspect of life. Violence, poverty, health concerns, education are always at the forefront of survival. She was already worrying about her son who had skipped school a few times.
Yesterday at the TN Prison for Women a woman admitted to the group that she is in there for selling drugs and now her own son is dabbling. She was horrified but in a way knew that she had almost facilitated this to happen, that it was the natural course. There was a woman who was also locked up who wanted to refer over her great grandchildren. She was in a wheelchair and I can’t even imagine what she did. One parent spoke of the fact that her children are already involved in the program and all the wonderful activities they did.

I want to change gears a little bit and focus more on the most incredible part of the whole experience. The children we serve!!! A few weeks ago we took children who are matched with a mentor at a few of the local Boys and Girls Club to a day camp and they canoed, did tree climbing and rode horses. Basically I was able to be a kid for the day. It made me want to make my living as a canoe instructor or something to that effect. The children were in heaven. They were so PROUD to see what they could accomplish. To see a child learn, to see a child experience, to see a child grow is an incredible experience. Many of the kids have not been exposed to life outside the city so it was pretty special to see wild turkeys when we drove in. You will see a photograph of the children getting psyched up to tree climb. I do feel so fortunate to work with children and to hear the different ways that people live in the community I live and to understand that poverty and violence need to be something that we combat especially for the sake of future generations!!!

Monday, May 12, 2008

"Visiting Day"

Amachi Kids Club on Saturday was very meaningful. We tackled incarceration issues head on and no matter how scary it was, it seemed to be so comforting for the children. We watched a video (Reading Rainbow) that included two sections: discussion of a book and then a segment about an actual family dealing with their father’s incarceration. The book is called “Visiting Day,” about a young girl and grandmother visiting the daddy in prison and they just talk about what they are feeling and how they think the father is feeling. The pictures are great but it is a really short book. The really impactful part is the true story. We did not show the whole video because some of the images were so graphic. The father said he shot someone and there were the constant noises of slamming doors. And the sound of prison doors slamming are totally different than a bedroom door slamming. A bedroom door slamming is like a cloudy day with some mist and the feeling one gets when being around a prison door slamming is that of a hurricane. I don’t notice it now but a prison is a place that one should feel uncomfortable and it was significant to create an atmosphere at Kids Club where children felt extreme comfort Mary and Sara brought in blankets for the children to lie on. As the movie began and the Reading Rainbow song came on the kids started singing the theme song. And when I say singing I mean singing, it was like a choir. It was hilarious!!! Take a look it’s in a book, it’s reading rainbow. Come on with me people belt it out. So we watched about a twenty minute section and then got into two groups to discuss what they just saw. We had a younger group and an older group. There were five of us from Big Brothers Big Sisters who did a whole planning session to create the questions and they included the following game plan:

· When children arrive make handprint flowers
· Do Ice Breaker-“Link Up”(Rachel): One person stands and talks about themself. When someone in the group has something in common with something they’ve said, they get up and link arms with the speaking person. Only one person at a time. They declare the thing that they had in common and then begin talking about themself until someone else comes up with the something in common with them. The activity continues until all group members are “Linked Up.”
· Sara G. describes how we are all “linked up,” description of Amachi Kids Club, etc. and let children know what to do if they are uncomfortable with movie, etc.
· At 2:30/2:45pm Watch “Visiting Day.”
· Break into small groups…and use a paper plate to draw how you feel
· Reflect on the following questions: (in no particular order)
1. When a parent goes to prison what do you think changes/happens?
2. How do you think your family is similar and different to the Goodens?
3. Who from the Gooden family do you relate to most (i.e. think you are most like them)? How? Characters include-Nikki, Chris, Malik, Malcom, Holten and Irene
4. Have you ever felt like Malik? Why do you think Malik is angry?
Another thought because they stress family relationship
5. Do you think it helps that the brothers and sisters can talk about what is going on?
6. What do you think will happen to this family?
· Gather back in one group (Mary would you like to lead this?)-to have children come up and write reflections on the big sheet of paper
· Conclusion (Carly) whatever you are feeling is ok…
7. Give out flowers and snack. See you next month for break dancing.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bails Bondsmen

So we are always thinking about different ways to recruit, children and volunteers. We especially want to know that the children who have an incarcerated parent are all being served. So brainstorming one day I realized that some families who often deal with incarceration might find themselves at the Bails Bondsmen. So one day last week I spent the day going downtown to tell the different offices about the program and provide brochures. I still have more to go to but I made a dent. It was very fascinating because I feel it takes a special person to be a Bails Bondsmen, I saw a man in a Hawaiian shirt playing video games, I saw men in suites, I saw it all. It was nice to be out of the cubicle today and be in my element for the day taking to people of all walks of life. Everyone that heard about the program was impressed with the roots of the program and how one man who had an incarcerated parent and had a mentor could have the vision to become mayor of Phili, a pastor, and create the Amachi Program for children to benefit in the same way he did.

It was a very productive day from talking to bails bondsmen, police officers, and youth workers. I love being out in the field and I know that there can be a domino effect. After people are empowered with the knowledge of what is going on in the community they can make a change.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Right # 7: I have the right not to be blamed or judged because of my parent's incarceration"

Yesterday I was able to listen to a conference call about "A Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents." We were all able to hear people speak to what it was like to be a child of an incarcerated mother or father and this was very powerful. These individuals talked about blame, shame, judgement, and secrecy. These issues are hard enough for adults let along children. One woman Ms. Suzie Jensen spoke of her mother being arrested for larceny. She feels that today she has to "prove to people that she can be the perfect daughter/mother/wife so as to not turn into her mother." Ironically this is "what got my mother into trouble." She wanted her children to have clothes, nice things, etc. Ms. Jensen also spoke about the idea of helping youth who are affected by incarceration. She said the idea should not be "to prevent future criminals but create future leaders." Amachi the program that I work with calls this population "Children of Promise."

Marlene Sanchez spoke as well. She had her own struggles with the juvenile justice system, dealing with her father's incarceration, and now her son's father is incarcerated. One of the most powerful things she said was that "anger protected me." I see that with the children we serve sometimes.

She had to call friends and say her name was Veronika to be able to talk to them because there was stigma attached to her family and even teachers said she would end up like her parents. Marlene was in a fight and the principal told the other girl's parents that Marlene's dad was in prison. AHHHHHHH---- Could you imagine that??? She is very open about talking to her son about his father and grandfather being locked up that the son will even tell clerks in a store that his daddy is in prison. Marlene said that her anger and resentment affected her personally and politically. Marlene was the first "youth," appointed to the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Commison.


I have been conducting more Mentoring Children of Prisoners surveys this month. I love the interaction with the children and just observing how the children live and how excited they are to meet their “Big.” Generally I do the survey the day before the Match Introduction. They always ask, “Are you my Big Sister.” It just makes me melt!!! It is amazing how children are so excited by the presence of adults…I was doing a survey for a little girl and the younger brother didn’t want to leave to pick up plastic animals for a school project because he didn’t want to miss the excitement (I felt like excitement was already there…there are 8 people who live in one side of a duplex)

It is important to me to understand the corrections world that I see Monday mornings and the everyday realities of the families and especially our “Children of Promise.” I think they can also be viewed as “Children of Transition.” When I am just talking to the children before the survey about school and what they like to do, it is incredible to find out that the majority of children have moved within the last year. And when talking to mom or grandma I often find out that they have taken a new job or might be having challenges with health. I have noticed lately that when I ask the question about gangs the children feel way too comfortable with the concept. One child wanted to clarify with me that what if it was someone he knew but not really a friend that was in a gang.

I felt a little funny after visiting the women’s prison in March because my heart ached. While the ladies were filling out the referrals one of the inmates told me her children are already a part of the program here in Nashville. I asked the names of the children because it is important to update Match Support in regards to what is going on in the family. I got the update of my life. The woman I saw before me was the mother of three siblings that always frequent kids club. The boy is so outgoing and the two little girls were very withdrawn I know that they have dealt with so much in the past when mom was incarcerated. I can’t imagine how the children are feeling!!!

I have still been doing the prison visits and following up on referrals. I scheduled seven new Amachi children the past month or so and reengaged three Amachi children. I am hoping for more referrals this next month. Many of the referrals I have been sending to other parts of Tennessee and even Arizona.

I have immensely enjoyed the opportunity in the last two weeks to visit universities and let them know about the Vista opening for August as well as working with community partners to make sure they are aware of the Amachi program. I felt really positive about a mobile nursing unit that I talked with as well. More outreach to come. Amachi Kids Club is this weekend and there will be a teen group that is doing a skit about bullying. “A diverse group of teenage actors from various Nashville high schools, The PG-13 Players (PG stands for Peer Guidance) probe hot-button issues facing young people today. Post-performance talkback sessions, in which the performers stay in character and reconcile their actions,=provide the opportunity for discussion and reflection.” (Nashville Scene)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Dancing in the Library

So on Saturday we had a group from Vanderbilt collaborate with Amachi Kids Club. This group reflects through poetry and dancing. There mission aligns so closely with what we are doing: Rhythm & Roots is dedicated to exploring the use of the performing arts as an expression of social complexities and as a catalyst for social change. We wish to inspire, uplift and provide hope to today's youth by bringing people together through a common bond (the arts). The dance, music and energy of the students and our audience, draw us closer to a better understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
The children were able to learn some hip hop moves and also hear a beautiful poem about self esteem. You can find some images that only tell part of the story. We also decorated journals so the children could do their own reflection. Saturday was a hectic day for the performers because they had a meeting as well but we improvised before they arrived. We played musical chairs and made an Easter collage that is now hanging in our office because it is so cute! Two of the little boys were playing soccer; somehow I think the librarians were not too impressed with the banging noise on the wall. I wish we could do more activities outside that involve sports but even the children are concerned about what happens at the basketball court. One child who is involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters in the Napier area took this picture.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Daddy has 18 years...

Sandy forwarded me an email from a mother about what she was experiencing recently with her eight year old son. I read the email and called the mother and the interaction with her affected my whole week. “I’m afraid that I’m losing my eight year old son. He’s acting out in school, at home and everywhere else. He’s teacher doesn’t know why, he doesn’t understand why. His father is incarcerated and has been his whole entire life. He feels like no one loves him, and we do. He plays football and sees all the other kids fathers, step-fathers, etc…coming to see them play and it makes him cry. My son is too young for that.” The mother was so excited about the program that she emailed the child’s application the same day. I know she will be committed to the program.

Today I had a referral from the prison to call a grandmother to follow up and receive the mother’s information. It was a somewhat overwhelming call. I found out that one of the sons has a birthday in March and the father was planning to do something special with him. The children don’t know that daddy is in prison but will find out this weekend when their grandmother takes them to see him. How do you explain to a 12 and 9 year old that dad murdered someone and will miss your whole childhood? He gets out in 18 years. The grandmother was explaining that the kids are living with the mother and some of her friends in a trailer park, so on top of the perils of poverty they lost their father.

Monday, February 25, 2008


I have done multiple visits to the prisons this month. It has still been extremely eye opening. I am finally at a point where the inmates can see what I have seen. Children are very vulnerable and their exposure to the cycle of incarceration is extreme. Last week I received a referral from an inmate at Charles Bass, so I called the mother to follow up and she said it was just not a good time. Her 19 year old son had followed the stepfather to prison a few days after her husband became incarcerated. I have only been doing this work since August and I have already seen firsthand what family’s experience. At our last staff meeting we had an Amachi theme to it. One of our mothers who has an a son in our Amachi program talked about her experiences and challenges and what it meant for her and her son to deal with a family member in prison. The phone calls were outrageously expensive. Books must be sent from a bookseller, you can not send your loved one used books. Your loved one can be moved at any time without warning. I think the average distance that an incarcerated parent lives from his or her child is two hours. The mother that spoke lost her auto insurance because it was with her husbands (who had been in the armed forces.) And it is revoked when someone is incarcerated. The mother found that the only program available for children who had an incarcerated parent was Big Brothers Big Sisters Amachi Program. During this staff meeting I realized how passionate I have become about the issues. When I have delved deep into a subject it affects the core of which I am- my soul. As I spoke and retold some of my experiences I felt my voice crack and my voice was tainted with emotion. I speak to sixty inmates weekly and I have become a very composed speaker but among my peers I became emotional and worked up.
Today there was hope…we show a DVD about the program and there are inmates and their stories showcased. The one man from the video was imprisoned at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison and was recently moved to another lower security prison where I do presentations. He will soon be on work release and than freed. I don’t know the whole history of what he did but he is a changed man. In the DVD he spoke about how his father was incarcerated when he was growing up and how he was incarcerated a lot of his son’s life and then his son followed the same path. So I saw this inmate today and asked about how his son is doing. His son was recently released and he received a grant to go to community college. So only now that they are grown men do they get a chance to be a family again.

Monday, February 11, 2008


This past month I have been involved with some more Mentoring Children of Prisoners surveys which has been pretty interesting because other than my time at Amachi Kids Club it is the only other chance to get to know the Amachi children. From the short time I am there I receive a snapshot of a life in transition. I talked to a grandmother some about her life and she was telling me about how she used to drive tractor trailers with her husband all across the country but is now retired. She takes care of her two grandsons afterschool then the aunt picks up both the children. These two boys are cousins but they both have been affected by the same thing----the incarceration of a parent. The aunt who the boys live with doesn’t even have children. It is amazing how families come together to care for “these children of promise.” It is just incredible what these children have to deal with at such a young age. The one boy’s mother is really sick and is a drug abuser. I just know that a big brother will give these boys more hope and support.
The men in prison do look beyond themselves and think of their families. A recent theme I have noticed in the correctional facilities is uncles referring their nieces and nephews for the program. Then when I call to do intake for the children I find out that the father is incarcerated as well. Talk about the cycle of brothers, sisters, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews…following family members to prison. The idea of a namesake never scared me before. My brother has an IV behind his name so obviously my family likes the idea, most do. We want to carry on qualities of our family members. We want a name to connect us. But there is power in a name and I don’t want these children to feel as though they have to live up to the name that their father or mother has. I don’t want Rodney Jr. and Rodneshia to follow their father Rodney to prison. Or five year old Antoniya or eight year old Antonnio Jr. to follow father Antonnio to prison.
Amachi Kids Club was a hit in January for the volunteers and the children. A taekwondo instructor came and did a demonstration. Chopping wood in half, high kicks, and the kids were in awe. The best was when the children were able to try everything they had seen. The way the instructor taught the children was they learned facts about TN as they kicked and learned the Korean words. They were so disciplined and so confident I wish we could have an Amachi Kids Club that would revolve around the martial arts. One of the “littles” is still telling her “big” a month later what the Tennessee state flower, bird, and animal are. Just last weekend we did activities for Black History Month and Valentines Day. It was fun and you could tell the kids were impressed with all the accomplishments of Black Americans. A woman from the Vanderbilt Black Law Association also worked with Kids Club and got a kick out of it. We played Valentine’s Day Bingo and decorated frames with beads and other nick knacks.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hope in Mentoring

I am spending my term as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Nashville, TN focusing on children who have an incarcerated parent. This population is very vulnerable to follow the same path as their parents. Without intervention there is a 70% chance that these children will end up in prison as well. Mentoring has become a major way to stop this generational cycle. My position is interesting because I actually talk to the mothers and fathers in prison to see if they are interested in referring their children. (I try not to watch the local news because I know that the stories of those guilty for murder, drugs, and robbery are the same individuals I will see). When talking to the parents my focus is on these "children of promise." Every week excitement entails as you can imagine. One time an incarcerated man asked me, "What are you doing in ten years?" His expected release. My favorite part of every month is planning Amachi Kids Club for children who have a parent in prison in a community torn by violence in Nashville. We do crafts, dance, taekwondo.

Rachel Copeland