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Nudging a child away from a jail cell

By T. Charles Pierson
(T. Charles Pierson is chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Texas.)
Opinion - Special to the Star-Telegram
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

More than 10 million children in the United States struggle against tremendous odds that historically lead to a life of violence and crime. They often fight alone, without an organized support system.

They are children of incarcerated parents, and 70 percent are predicted to follow in their parents' footsteps. Children of prisoners are five times more likely to commit a violent crime and have a higher risk for poor academic performance and substance abuse.

There is hope, however, and one group of child advocates is determined to help stop the intergenerational cycle of incarceration.

Amachi Texas -- a joint initiative involving the Office for the Governor, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Workforce Commission, OneStar Foundation and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Texas (BBBS) -- has developed a program to help reduce this alarming statistic.

In partnership with BBBS, the nation's largest and most effective youth mentoring organization, Amachi helps children of prisoners realize their maximum potential through safe, positive mentoring.

Studies show that children who receive positive one-on-one mentoring are 52 percent less likely to skip school, 46 percent less likely to use illegal drugs, 33 percent less likely to strike someone in anger and 27 percent less likely to use alcohol. And most important, successful intervention reduces the likelihood that these children will end up in prison.

Amachi -- the Nigerian Ebo word means "Who knows what God has brought us through this child?" -- is the creation of Wilson Goode, the former two-term mayor of Philadelphia and a child of incarcerated parents. First introduced in Philadelphia in 2001, the program is used in more than 273 projects in 48 states. Amachi Texas is the first statewide model.

The rapid growth of Amachi is both hopeful and alarming. On one hand, it tells us that it's effective and the issue is gaining much-needed attention. However, it is also a dismal reminder that thousands of children nationwide lack the guidance necessary to become successful adults.

As the CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Texas, I have witnessed the impact of this incredible organization through our partnership with Amachi Texas. But it's my personal experience as an Amachi mentor to Jamar that truly opened my eyes to the life-changing power of the program.

Jamar's father, arrested before Jamar was even born, is serving a life sentence for murder. When I first met Jamar, he was troubled, angry and prone to violence. Today, Jamar's attitude and behavior have dramatically improved -- and a boy who once idolized the prison lifestyle is looking toward a bright future that includes becoming a Big Brother himself.

Hundreds of stories like mine could be told. Each relationship endures unique obstacles and struggles. But time and time again, the results speak loud and clear--a small gift of attention and love is the difference between a life of crime and a life of hope for these neglected children.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area alone, 72,000 children have lost a parent to incarceration. These children have a second chance to receive positive guidance, love and support, thanks to Amachi Texas.

Reducing the levels of incarceration benefits us all. By targeting this high-risk group, the Amachi program has the power to dramatically reduce violence and crime nationwide. I urge you to join us to break the intergenerational cycle of crime.

To learn more

Big Brothers Big Sisters of North Texas: (888) 997-BIGS or www.bbbsnt.org