|Posted by Janice L. Bailey on August 10, 2021 at 3:50 PM|
Camp offers a chance for formerly incarcerated moms to rebuild relationships with their daughters!
By Julianna Morano
9:00 AM on Jun 22, 2021
“No running!” says Diana Lopez, a volunteer at a summer camp organized by the nonprofit Girls Embracing Mothers.
Diana Lopez and her daughter Ariel Lopez, 14, pose for a photo during a Girls Embracing Mothers camp the non-profit held at the STEM Center of Excellence in Dallas, Saturday, June 12, 2021. Girls Embracing Mothers provides services for girls with currently or formerly incarcerated mothers.(Brandon Wade / Special Contributor)
You can’t blame the young campers as they make a break for their cabins: The summer heat is finally kicking in, and swimming is the next activity on deck. They’ve already enjoyed archery and spoken-word poetry at the STEM Center of Excellence at Camp Whispering Cedars in southern Dallas.
All the girls wear matching T-shirts. Each one has GEM’s diamond-shaped logo emblazoned on the front and the words “Embrace/Encourage/Empower” in hot pink on the back. These shirts hint at what else they have in common:
They all, at some point, have been separated from their mothers by the walls of a prison.
Girls who grow up with an incarcerated mother can become isolated in more ways than one. Their mothers are literally behind bars, often many miles away and with limited opportunities to visit. On top of that, the stigma of incarceration can make them feel alone in their experience and hesitant to talk about it.
That’s where GEM comes in, offering programs to help girls build stronger relationships, not only with their mothers but also with one another.
The organization partners with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to offer girls enrolled in their Pearl Program longer, more consistent visits with their mothers in prison. GEM also provides transportation to these visits in Gatesville, where four of Texas’ women’s prisons are located, and activities like facilitated discussions and art therapy for the mothers and daughters.
Summer camp is an example of GEM’s Diamond Program, which provides educational activities for the daughters outside of prison. This program is meant to empower the girls by teaching social and practical skills with a focus on exploring science and performing arts.
Brittany K. Barnett, a Dallas lawyer, founded GEM following the incarceration of her own mother when she and her sister were in their early 20s. Barnett said this motivated her in 2013 to form a community that would support young girls with incarcerated mothers and help “break the cycle” of incarceration, both for the mothers and daughters.
This cycle is trapping more and more women, both in Texas and nationally. A 2016 study by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an organization that researches issues in the criminal justice system and alternatives to incarceration, found that the population of women incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice increased by 908% between 1980 and 2016. An estimated 81% of the population of incarcerated women surveyed for the study in 2014 were mothers.
This rate parallels a growth in incarcerated women around the country. The Sentencing Project, a research organization that tracks incarceration trends nationwide, identified a 700% increase in the number of incarcerated women between 1980 and 2019, and ascribes many of these convictions to drug charges and other nonviolent crimes.
“When girls succeed, so does society,” Barnett said. “I really want to empower women and girls impacted by the justice system to know that they matter. They are valued.”
From program participant to director
Angelica Zaragoza, left, and her daughter Jalyssa Zaragoza, 17, posed for a photo during a Girls Embracing Mothers camp the nonprofit held at the STEM Center of Excellence in Dallas. Girls Embracing Mothers provides services for girls with currently or formerly incarcerated mothers.(Brandon Wade / Special Contributor)
Angelica Zaragoza plans events like this year’s summer camp, which took place earlier this month. Before becoming program director in 2020, Zaragoza was a GEM mom herself. She said the program inspired her to be better, for herself and her daughter Jalyssa.
During one GEM-sponsored visit with her daughter in 2014, Zaragoza said she had a breakthrough rebuilding her relationship with Jalyssa. It was in an art therapy workshop; the moms and daughters were making a craft out of a sock.
Before that, Zaragoza said their visits consisted of “complete silence.” Her daughter was hurt, which Zaragoza said was understandable.
But that day, “She just turned to me and [said], ‘Mama, I can’t do this, can you help me?’” Zaragoza said. “When she told me that, I just knew. … If I just kept fighting and kept doing just the next right thing for the next hour, then I knew that I would get through this.”
Jalyssa, now 17, will graduate from high school next year. Zaragoza credits GEM for helping transform their relationship to become “99% better than what it ever has been.”
“Today, she counts on me. She depends on me. She turns to me for advice,” Zaragoza said. “We have a bond that’s beginning to be unbreakable, you know, even though it’s not perfect.”
Stories like Zaragoza’s are not uncommon among GEM moms, whom Barnett calls the program’s “most dedicated volunteers.”
But GEM draws external volunteers, too. One such volunteer is Sharanda Jones, whom Barnett helped free from a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole for a first-time drug-related offense in 2015.
Jones said she wishes she and her daughter had a program like GEM when she was first incarcerated, especially to alleviate the alienation her daughter felt.
“At the beginning, when my daughter was 8, [if she’d] had GEM girls around her, we both would have understood our situation better,” Jones said. “My daughter could understand [there were] more girls like her.”
The girls feel these impacts, too. Ariel, Lopez’s daughter, was the first girl to participate in GEM when her mother was still incarcerated. She said the program has played a “big role” in her and her mother’s lives. Her favorite part has been “the friends that I make here,” she said.
Scratching the surface
Over eight years, GEM has grown to enroll a maximum of 25 girls in its Pearl Program and over 60 in the Diamond Program. The Pearl Program now has a waitlist and will continue to expand.
That’s not without its challenges, however. Evelyn Fulbright, Barnett’s mother and a board member of GEM, said she recalled the days when the organization consisted of just her, Barnett and a van they rented to transport the girls. Funding in particular remains an obstacle. This likely stems from the organization’s association with incarcerated people, she said.
“The stigma is so … thick,” Fulbright said.
People who have recently been released from prison face a whole range of difficulties — from searching for housing to getting hired. Even GEM, which offers a reentry stipend for mothers, struggles to meet all of these needs.
“You need a team when you get out,” Jones said of her experience with reentry. Without a support system, “you go back to your old ways, or you just waste away. That’s when you have no hope. But to keep that hope is to know somebody out there has your back.”
For some of these moms, GEM was that support system — and even though the group couldn’t provide everything, it was a start.
You can see it at camp. The moms and adult volunteers huddle around the tables during workshops as closely as the girls do, cracking jokes and stifling laughter in quiet moments.
And for the moms, there’s no feeling quite like volunteering at camp and accompanying their daughters for the first time, Fulbright has observed through the years.
She calls it “happy ending stuff, right there.”