Mentors help children of incarcerated avoid pitfalls

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Amachi is part of a Nigerian phrase that asks: "Who knows what God has brought us through this child?"

This belief in the promise of a child is the inspiration behind the local charity, Amachi Pittsburgh, headquartered at 100 Ross St., Downtown.

Originating in Philadelphia, Amachi is modeled after the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, except that it targets children between the ages of 4 and 18 who have one or both parents in prison. Amachi is faith-based and partners with local congregations to match each child with an adult mentor of the same gender.

With some statistics predicting that children of incarcerated parents are five to seven times more likely to be incarcerated than their peers, Amachi's goal is to give these children a positive, supportive role model to help break this cycle. The national charity has more than 100 chapters in more than 100 cities.

Amachi Pittsburgh, founded in 2003, held a fund-raiser last week at J. Verno Studios on the South Side to premiere its new logo, designed to help raise the charity's profile in the Pittsburgh community. Officials of the charity hope to make the fund-raiser an annual event.

The nonprofit was awarded a three-year grant of $600,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Amachi is required to match $400,000.

Thus far the charity has raised $150,000. The event last week raised approximately $40,000.

Brandon Ballard, an outreach coordinator, said that in Allegheny County, an estimated 7,000 children have one or both parents in prison. The charity currently has about 170 child/mentor pairings.

A majority of the children benefiting live in Pittsburgh, Mr. Ballard said, but many children also live in the Mon Valley and the South Hills.

Michael Rhue, a minister at the Morning Star Baptist Church in West Mifflin, has served for three years as a mentor to a 13-year-old boy from Garfield. He said that he feels like their time together has been meaningful.

"Most of these kids never had the opportunity to go the places other kids get to go," Mr. Rhue said. He said that he enjoys taking his child to places such as Kennywood.

Harriet Washington, also with the Morning Star, serves as a coordinator for the program and as a mentor for the past three years to a 9-year-old girl who lives in Homestead. She takes the girl to see shows, out to eat, and to special events.

"When she makes honor roll at school, I give her a card and a few dollars to congratulate her," Ms. Washington said. "A child can excel beyond crime if she has a good example."

Michelle Thompson, a case management supervisor, said that success stories let the charity know that its program helps local families. She said one of the first families the charity aided was from Pittsburgh. There were three children and both parents were in prison. All three children were given mentors, she said.

"The mother was so touched that someone cared about her children when she was away," Ms. Thompson said. "When she was released she turned her whole life around. The woman is now one of our biggest supporters."

Motivational speaker Les Brown, of Chicago, who grew up with his own mother in jail for a period of time, spoke to Amachi supporters at the event.

His three-part message encouraged attendees to work on developing a positive mindset, to cultivate effective communication skills, and to surround themselves with quality people.

"As a child of a parent who was once incarcerated, I saw that other people do care, and people like this can help make kids in this situation better, as opposed to bitter," Mr. Brown said.

Amachi asks mentors to commit to at least one year with a child, and three to four hours each month. Mentors must complete a basic training course, and have background clearances.

Amachi partners with local organizations, including the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation, the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation and the Prison Fellowship Ministries/Project Angel Tree, Allegheny County Jail.

For more call 412-281-3752 or visit www.amachimentoring.org.


Erin Gibson Allen is a freelance writer.


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