Kayla Bowyer was a freshman at Schenley High School in Pittsburgh, PA, when she was matched with a mentor. Like millions of other children nationwide, Bowyer was the child of an incarcerated parent. Yolanda, her mentor of three years through an organization called Amachi, provided the needed stability that wasn’t always available at home.
“It was like a second family kind of thing,” Bowyer said. “She [her mentor] didn’t try to replace my mom and she didn’t try to act like a second mother. But she also didn’t try and act like she was one of my buddies at school- there was a clear line of respect for her as an adult.”
Fast forward to today, where Kayla now works for Amachi, a Pittsburgh-based organization that focuses on placing mentors with students affected by incarceration.
Founded in 2000, Amachi, reaches out to children impacted by incarceration through one-on-one mentoring programs, youth leadership development, and family strengthening and reunification support.
Why focus specifically on children of incarcerated parents?
According to Anna Hollis, executive director of Amachi, these children are especially vulnerable, and many lack the support systems and services that other children have.
“Our mentors are giving the kids that they’re matched up with-- as well as their families, caregivers, and other people in that child’s world-- a sense of hope and encouragement,” she said.
Perhaps the most formative place for these children to find this kind of support system is in the school. Amachi strategically places mentors in the school system to try to end the cycle of the “school to prison pipeline”, a trend in which students who are suspended, expelled or arrested for minor offenses often fall behind in their studies or drop out, get caught up in crime, and ultimately end up in prison.
“Education is the number one opportunity that kids have to move beyond poverty and the risks associated with poverty,” said Hollis.
In addition to one-on-one mentoring, the Amachi Ambassadors program engages with issues of school reform and talks with students about their school climates, discipline policies, and what they think should change.
Though Amachi focuses heavily on mentor relationships, Hollis recognizes the limitations. That’s why she says it’s vital for the entire community, from churches and families to businesses and local government, to be involved in education.
For Charity Haubrich, project director of the Christians Investing in Education initiative at the Center for Public Justice, it’s equally important for Christians to serve as active citizens.
“We need to encourage government to create just policies that help schools bring the resources of organizations like Amachi to students and families in need,” she said. “We need to be citizens who are on the forefront of promoting changes in the structure of the education system.”
To aid in this process, Hollis and her team are creating a formal curriculum to train families and churches.
“Amachi is an entry into the field,” Hollis said. “We give opportunities for people who want to help children and their families, but that doesn’t do anything for the system that continues to feed us more kids than we can serve.”
And in order to make changes in that system, Hollis says, it’s critical for the whole community to invest in the education system.
“As Christians we are both called and responsible for justice, and when we look at the disparities in education, it becomes a justice issue,” she said.