On Nov. 14, San Quentin’s visiting room became a place of hugs and fun for the children of incarcerated parents in San Quentin when Sesame Street’s Elmo came to play.
“I think it’s wonderful, the department being involved in rehabilitation,” said Warden Kevin D. Chappell. “This is the first time an event of this magnitude has occurred that reaches out to incarcerated men and children. I’m excited that Centerforce and Sesame Street chose us to launch this event.”
Carol F. Burton, Executive Director of Centerforce, explained that she teamed up with Sesame Street to develop a method for incarcerated parents to stay in touch with their children after noting how children’s behavior is affected because they do not understand incarceration.
Through the collaboration, the team created an advice sheet called, Tips for Incarcerated Parents that gives incarcerated parents specific ways to tell their children about prison and how to help their child adjust to their circumstances.
“California is a pilot state for the project. If we can get greater support and financial backing of course, we’ll go to every prison with at least one event to announce the material,” said Burton.
When inmate Gerald Salas was asked about his daughter, Aviana he said, “I’m sitting in the cell one day thinking about her when I received notice that a Sesame Street program for 3-8 year olds was coming to San Quentin.”
He contacted his mother and wife and told them about the program. Aviana was 8 months old when Gerald started doing time. “The first time she came to see me in prison; I had tears in my eyes. It left me with mixed emotion,” he said. Salas said, “She never asked why I’m in prison, but she knows that I am somewhere I should not be.” His wife was extremely upset when he started this prison term. She knew that he would be missing being part of her every day life, but he believes the tool kit provided by Sesame Street, Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration has given them a new approach to handling Aviana’s questions.
Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration is designed to:
- Support, comfort, and reduce anxiety, sadness, and confusion that young children may experience during the incarceration of a parent
- Provide at-home caregivers with strategies, tips, and age-appropriate language they can use to help communicate with their children about incarceration
- Inform incarcerated parents themselves that they can parent from anywhere, and provide them with simple parenting tips highlighting the importance of communication.
His wife’s sometimes has to explain to Aviana that Daddy’s at a place where he has work to do all the time. “Often times she’ll be sad or I have to tell her that Daddy is coming home soon, but this program has given my wife and me new tips on how to explain my separation from her. She’s too young to understand what’s really going on,” he said.
As Aviana played with Elmo, kissing and hugging him, she looked into her father’s eyes and said, “Daddy I love you.”
Nearly 2.7 million children have a parent in state or federal prison, according to Centerforce, yet few resources exist to support young children and families with this life changing circumstance.
Centerforce began in 1972 by establishing a visitors’ center at San Quentin State Prison and now has a center at all California state prisons.
Serving children and families is central to Centerforce through its LIFE Project, which provided mentors to children of incarcerated parents and parenting/family reunification programs at San Quentin, Santa Rita Jail and in Contra Costa County. www.centerforce.org.
Centerforce is a California-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for individuals, families, and communities impacted by incarceration. For over 40 years, Centerforce has been a national leader in providing groundbreaking, evidence-based programs to incarcerated people and their loved-ones.
Centerforce is one of few agencies in the U.S. to offer a continuum of transformative services during incarceration, reentry and after release.