By reading letters to their children, men incarcerated at San Quentin contributed to a documentary, Love Letters to Our Fathers, about building a relationship with imprisoned fathers.
In addition, the documentary features children, supported by Project Avary, reading letters to their incarcerated fathers.
The theme of the letters is “Love Lost and Love Found.”
“The film stories highlight the parents’ and child’s struggles,” said Zach Whelan, Project Avary executive director. “It captures the hurt and the pain, but also how the love is still there and how the parent and child want to reconcile.”
The men were from San Quentin’s Guiding Rage into Power (GRIP) self-help program, a longtime partner with Project Avary Prison Reconciliation Program and Insight Project Reach program.
“One of our goals is to show the parents how their incarceration impacts their children,” said Whelan. “It’s about encouraging them to reach out to their kids — no matter what you are, you are still a dad.
“The question parents need to ask is how this is affecting my child and understand they have to have patience. The kids are also living their sentence.
“Some of the kids could be living in poverty or dealing with abuse. The kids need time to heal; to just understand that because they are not writing you, they are working out things,” added Whelan.
Project Avary is a San Francisco Bay Area-based organization that gives a 10-year commitment to about 125 kids with incarcerated parents. It has numerous programs such as summer camps, teen leadership and family-unity programs.
“It’s about one kid at a time,” said Whelan. “It’s about giving them a long-term family feel.”
In a recent outing, Project Avary trained the kids in boxing and visited an indoor rock-climbing wall.
“It’s a great release for the kids and helps them process things,” said Whelan. “It’s a good way to teach them the important life skills of discipline, positive thinking, self-empowerment, and anger management.”
The kids, ranging from ages 8-10, are able to form lasting bonds with other children dealing with the same issues. The object is for them to form lifetime relationships. As the kids grow into adults, most of them return as counselors to help the next generation of children.
“Before Avary, I was all alone,” said Patty. “I didn’t know anyone else in a position like mine. But after Avary, everything changed. I met people who know what I was going through. I didn’t even know these kids existed.”
“It’s about giving them a long-term family feel”
At summer camp, Patty met long-time friend TT as 8- and 9-year-old kids, “She’s ‘fam,’” said Patty. Now in their 20s, both returned to Camp Avary as junior counselors.
“I remember looking up to the counselors when I was younger,” said TT. “So now to come back as one that will be very special. I want to share everything I’ve learned.”
The camp holds therapeutic campfire discussions, where the kids talk about the shame, stigma and the grief of having a parent in prison.
These discussions help the kids process their feeling in a safe place for self-discovery and reflection with other kids who are experiencing what they are going through.
We have collaborated with the San Francisco Unified School District to bring the Avary Fire Circle to the schools,” said Whelan. “It’s a support group with an eight-week curriculum.”
Project Avary believes the 10-year commitment of 125 children is the best investment in a kid’s life. Therefore, they are providing an organizational model that other community groups could follow for other kids.
They also offer the caregivers retreats and spa days.
“It’s about self-care for them,” said Whelan. “They can be financially stressed out, and we take them out and pamper them. Also with the camp, it gives them a week off.”
Project Avary provides free year-around programs and summer camps, funded by contributions and donations.
This September San Quentin will hold the “March for the Next Generation” sponsored by the Kid CAT program to raise money for the kids. The Kid CAT group is made up of youth offenders, who came into prison as young as 14 to 16 years old.
Avary programs are also at Avenal, Solano and Soledad state prisons.
“I’m grateful to be part of an organization that is doing something rich and meaningful,” said Amy Deleon, Project Avary director of community resources. “These kids are amazing; you can see how they value the programs. This is a life that is happening, and it’s different seeing this side where the parents are.”
Mailing address: PO Box 150088, San Rafael, CA 94915-0088
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