Ex-prisoners give incarcerated parents' kids holiday treat

The children "need to feel like they still belong to this community," says Celebrate Kids! founder Vance Bartley, once a lifer behind bars under the state’s three-strikes law.

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Gift Room at Celebrate Kids!

The children "need to feel like they still belong to this community," says Celebrate Kids! founder Vance Bartley, once a lifer behind bars under the state’s three-strikes law.

The holidays can be tough on children of parents in prison. These kids face challenges all year round, including emotional problems, difficulty sleeping, involvement in fighting at school, and lower grades. A day of games and treats at Rainier Beach High in December is no cure-all, of course. But former prisoner Vance Bartley believes that special seasonal festivities will tell these kids that the community cares about them and understands the deprivation they suffer.

Bartley, released four years ago from a life sentence handed out under the state’s three-strikes law, dreamed up Celebrate Kids! while sitting in his cell, wondering how his family would fare during the holidays. He decided that if he ever got out, he would organize an annual day of fun and gifts for children of parents in jail or prison. So on a recent Saturday (Dec. 10), for the fourth year in a row more than 300 children and their caregivers converged on Rainier Beach High School to enjoy themselves together.

Post-Prison Education Program (PPEP) sponsors the event. Executive director Ari Kohn told me, “These kids, according to Nell Burnstein’s All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, are five to seven times more likely to go to prison than other kids.” PPEP’s goal is to “give them a bright day, a positive event around positive people, that happens at a school.” Fostering pleasurable associations with school is important because a high-school diploma is the most effective inoculation against getting in trouble with the law, he said.

Recently Kohn asked a group of about 150 prisoners at Stafford Creek Corrections Center how many had been expelled from school. “It looked to me like everybody in the room raised their hands,” said Kohn. “That begins the trek to prison.” Early achievement in school also matters: He cited a Seattle Times article saying that Washington state projects the number of prison cells that will be needed a decade or so down the road on the basis of statewide fourth-grade reading scores. Low scores at that point lead almost certainly to dropping out, which is “a pipeline to prison,” Kohn said.

Giving children a happy day of wandering among school classrooms where fun and gifts await them is a small part of PPEP’s effort to keep people who are statistically at risk of being involved in the corrections system out of it. The central mission of PPEP is to reduce recidivism by helping newly released men and women transition from prison culture into academic programs leading to postsecondary degrees. Research shows that prisoners with two years of college have a re-arrest rate of 10 percent, compared to about 60 percent nationwide. 

Celebrate Kids! buys many of the gifts and games for the day with contributions from prisoners who donate the small wages they earn through their labors inside corrections facilities. This strengthens bonds of affection between them and their children. Prisoners who have active connections with their families commit 67 percent fewer infractions while incarcerated, according to Joenne McGerr, family services manager for the state Department of Corrections, increasing their chances of an early return to their families. They also lead more successful post-release lives, with lower rates of recidivism and fewer violations of parole, according to research reviewed by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But the focus of the Celebrate Kids! event was on the children. Bartley and about 80 other volunteers created stations around the school that kept hundreds of kids absorbed and happy from 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Each child received a “passport” to be stamped as they went room to room participating in such activities as Art, Drum Circle, Cupcake Decorating, and Bingo. A certain number of stamps earned the child his or her choice of clothing and school supplies, books from Book Share, a brand-new stuffed animal, a hat or scarf freshly hand-knitted by Warm for Winter volunteers, and a festive new present from the Gift Room to take home.  

Along the way, children had their photo-portraits taken in costume, heard music and poetry in the auditorium, performed at an open mike, bounced in Bounce Houses in the gym, beat the tasty stuffing out of piñatas, and enjoyed a turkey dinner with their companions.

Video participants: Ari Kohn (Post-Prison Education Program), Vance G. Bartley (Celebrate Kids!) with his fellow planners Steve Dozier and Juan Vega, Janice Tufte (Warm for Winter), Lindsay Turner (Tacoma public defender), and volunteers including Albert and Marty. Joleen Franklin, on the staff at Rainier Beach, helped bring the event to the school.


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