A Bay Area nonprofit organization geared to help children of incarcerated parents recently held its 16th annual summer camp with the theme “Healing through Expression.”
Project Avary provides youngsters a safe place in nature for self-discovery, reflection and using the outdoors as a cure, according to its executive director, Zachary Whelan.
“We intervene early in the lives of children at the ages of 8 to 11, and we make a long-term 10-year commitment to each child and family,” said Whelan.
The camp allows children to be children through activities such as swimming, hiking, music and arts and crafts. They attended therapeutic campfire discussions and expressive art activities about the shame, stigma and the grief of having a parent in prison.
“Some kids feel the pressure to keep secrets about where their parents are and that can produce shame,” said Whelan. “So these discussions help kids process their feelings with other kids that are going through what they are going through.”
This year’s camp provided training in stress reduction, anger management and conflict resolution through yoga, meditation and nonviolent communication for the youth.
Teens at the age of 14 can go through a Teen Leadership Program, a wilderness rite of passage to mark their transition from camper to teen leader.
The Junior Counselor program, which begins at age 15, empowers teen leaders to guide and counsel the younger children in the program. They receive youth development and life skills training, preparing them for a junior counselor job at Avary.
“Through early intervention and long-term support, we are changing lives and putting a stop to generational cycles of incarceration,” said Whelan.
Project Avary also connects with incarcerated parents through its Prison Reconciliation Program. It has worked with San Quentin’s Guiding Rage into Power (GRIP) program and Insight Project Reach programs at other prisons.
Avary graduates speak to incarcerated parents about how to build connections with their children and what they go through.
“We would like to partner with more groups at San Quentin,” said Whelan. “We know it’s a lot of hurt kids and parents, but we also need more funding.
“It affects our staff greatly when we receive fundraising checks from the prisons. It shows that we are in this together, and that help send a handful of kids to camp.”
According to Avary’s annual evaluation, 96 percent of Avary youth showed improvement in resiliency, attachment, connection with a caring adult and connection with a positive peer group.
At least 84 percent of Avary graduates have completed one year of college, while only 6 percent of Avary graduates have been arrested.
“Over the past 16 years our programs and offerings have evolved to meet the complex and unique needs of this community,” he said.
It facilitates monthly Caregiver Groups to build bonds of support and assistance among caregivers.
They have spring and winter gatherings for children and caregivers that strengthen connections within the Avary community.
“We are working on state and federal legislation to make it easier for these kids,” said Whelan. “If we are going to take kids from parents, as a community we have to step in.
“We have to give voice to the forgotten needs of the children of incarcerated parents and assert the implementation of the CIP Bill of Rights (a list of needs and values).”
Avary’s goal is to provide a safe space where families and children of prisoners can be open and honest about the pain and grief of losing a loved one to the criminal justice system. Children can join together to grieve and heal the wounds of loss and abandonment.
“We are a community that gives kids a deep sense of belonging, dignity and hope,” added Whelan. “When the kids do better, everybody does better.
“The camp truly offered the time and space for the children to form authentic lifelong relationships with peers and caring adults,” concluded Whelan.
Project Avary was founded in 1999 by Danny Rifkin, co-manager of the rock group the Grateful Dead, and former San Quentin Chaplain Earl Smith.
They initially met on a tour of the prison, and a longer-term collaboration developed when members of the Grateful Dead began regular visits to work with and record the San Quentin Choir, and the project has still been going strong.