By Anthony Padilla Project Avary
Parental incarceration is like a mass pandemic, affecting the lives of one in 14 children in the United States. About half of children with incarcerated parents are under the age of 10. I was one of those kids, and now I am doing my best to help kids who are as scared as I was.
Project Avary has been a safe haven for such children for decades. A big staple of this organization is summer camp and a special part of camps are the fire circles where we speak and listen from the heart.
These fire circles give children who have a story to tell, a platform to tell their story within a community that can relate to what they are going through. Children with parents in prison often feel isolated and keep quiet about their story. It’s critical that they are given a space to share their emotions and have them be heard by others like them.
Over time the outer structure of these fire circles has changed, but the essence and power of them to heal and help make us feel whole and empowered has always remained the same.
When I first came to Avary, these fire circles were separated into two groups, boys and girls. The girls would go to a fire pit in camp, while the boys would line up and walk to another pit further away.
While the boys walked, we sang a song that was a rite of passage song and we screamed it as we walked. These fire circles were meant to be a judgment-free zone. It brings me so much joy seeing all the kids who do not normally talk, share their story and lean on us to support them.
At the end of the night, all the boys would get into a huddle around the fire and begin singing more songs. At the same time, we could also hear the howls of the girls in the distance. Everything that we did at this fire circle was special.
We bonded as Avary brothers and sisters and provided a space for true, raw emotion to be shown and accepted. As the times changed though, we’ve adapted the ways in which our fire circles are done.
We have gone from separating by gender to including everyone in the same circle, honoring both our distinctions and our unity and the common bond of all having an incarcerated parent. In recent years, we have had to adapt around the current pandemic to be able to find ways to create that safe space for everyone to feel welcome and included even though we couldn’t meet in person. We started with calls on Zoom and turned into fire circles on Zoom and I still felt the support that I felt when in person at camp or on retreats.
Once we discovered that we could gather around the Avary Fire on Zoom, we saw that we could include youth from outside the Bay Area. As time went on, we began reaching out to more kids from across the United States. I am overjoyed to see these new kids from all over the country participating in fire circles, sharing their emotions and no longer feeling so alone with their experience.
We recently had a summer camp for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I was lucky enough to have attended three weeks of camp. I could see that in each fire circle, with different kids each week, the passion and support were back.
I understand that having someone relate to you who knows what you’re going through, lifts the heaviest weights off you. I broke down many times in the firelight and I was constantly shown love and comfort by my peers.
I noticed and was amazed by how mature these kids are. I am shocked at how mature a 10-year-old can be about their emotions. I feel as if these circles help the kids develop skills to analyze their emotions and understand why they feel that way — and transform negativity into positivity.
You never understand lots of things in life, but I can say that I understand what makes these circles so great. The support and kindness that is shown is a rare sight for sore eyes.
I’ve lived through multiple years full of questions and doubt, and now it is with great pleasure that I am leading these fire circles and able to help heal and shape the minds of the future generation.