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How Sharing Experiences Are Helping to Ease Shared Sentences

For many kids, Saturday mornings are for sleeping in, cartoons, or early morning sports practice. But for a small group of young men gathered at Detroit’s Northwest Activity Center, Saturdays mornings mean much more.

“It makes me feel sad and mad sometimes. I just feel frustrated that he’s away,” said Valdez, a sixth grader and native of Detroit.

Valdez is part of Developing Despite Distance, a non-profit organization offering support to young men of color with incarcerated parents.

On this particular Saturday morning, he and his fellow participants are working on vision boards. The middle schoolers scour through old magazines searching for words and pictures that represent their goals and interests. So far, the boards are filled with motivational quotes, fancy cars and photos of their favorite basketball players. Normal kid stuff.

But these boys’ childhoods have been anything but “normal.” Each must bear a weight that, to many, is unimaginable.

“I was two years old when my dad went away and I’m 12 now,” Valdez continued. “He still has 9 years [in his sentence].”

And Valdez is not alone. One in ten children in Michigan suffer as a result of parental incarceration. Though the issue impacts a large number of youth, especially in Detroit, it is often a topic that goes unaddressed, sometimes even unnoticed.

This is where Developing Despite Distance steps in. Through group discussions, activities, and outings, the organization helps boys of color find ways to talk about their incarcerated parents and builds connections based on similar experience.

“Parental incarceration is real,” said program founder, Tiffany Brown. “Children with incarcerated parents are all around us but we often don’t notice them. They’re in our schools, in our families and in our neighborhoods.”

Brown founded the program with the goal of providing these young men with the support and resources they deserve. Her motivation also comes from her own experience growing up with a parent in prison. It was during this time that she realized that parental incarceration creates a shared sentence served not only by the parent, but also the child.

“The parent to child connection is fundamental to any child’s growth. People underestimate how important that connection is and the impact it can have when it is missing,” said Brown.

The program also helps to coordinate visits so the young men can speak with their incarcerated parent face-to-face. They even provide funding for boys to make visits to parents that are being held out of state. In addition to the middle school aged cohort, Developing Despite Distance also works with young men of color in high school with a shared experience.

“Sometimes I feel like I have a lot on my shoulders, but when I meet someone in a similar circumstance, I can relate and share stories,” said Tayvaun, a member of the high school aged cohort.

But regardless of the participant’s age, opening up about their experiences growing up with a parent away from home is difficult. It can take a few session before each young man feels comfortable sharing their story.

“At first, I didn’t want to bother anybody with the problems I was going through growing up without a dad. But they made me feel like I was at home and I could share anything with them and they would listen. I never had anyone in my life that would listen like them,” said Darius, a recent graduate of Cody High School.

This connection through shared experience helps to create an almost familial aspect to the program. They know that they can depend on one another and trust that the personal thoughts and feelings they share with the group will be kept confidential and met with support. In addition to their weekly meetings and visits, the group also participants in activities and trips in and around Detroit, allowing the young men to experience the fun aspects of childhood that others may take for granted.

Most importantly, Developing Despite Distance ensures that its members are receiving the support, guidance and resources they need achieve their educational, personal, and future professional goals. The organization proves that, though parental incarceration is a heavy weight to bare, it is not one that should be lifted alone.

To learn more about Developing Despite Distance, visit their website.

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