Letters from the front

By Gabi Moore

A Northwest Initiative program aims to keep kids in contact with incarcerated parents


For about a half hour on Saturday afternoon, the back lawn of the old Walnut Street School in Lansing was turned into a battlefield.

A platoon of 10 little warriors, fortified with a battery of lime, purple and blue paint, loaded slingshots with artistic implements and assaulted the enemy: a long, empty canvas strung up along a fence.

The battle began in orderly fashion, but soon devolved into a wild game of dipping sponges, brushes and body parts into buckets of paint and slathering the canvas. One excited boy coated his arms in green paint up to his elbows and cried, “I’m a lizard man!”

“It started as this Pollock-esque thing, and it just evolved into … this,” cavalry leader (or, volunteer) Dylan Rogers said, looking on at the children mashing paint to the canvas. “It’s a battlefield.”

The children were taking part in a program at the Northwest Initiative that counsels kids who have a parent in prison by making sure they stay in communication with mom or dad. And, sometimes, the kids get to do a constructive activity, like Saturday’s “paint war.” (As was repeated many times Saturday, the number one rule of “paint war” is to not sling paint at another person.)

“We’re trying to just have some fun and get the kids together,” program organizer Jeana-Dee Allen said, adding that the painting was an entertaining alternative to sitting still inside and talking, and a healthy way to release aggression.

Peggy Vaughn-Payne, Northwest Initiative executive director, said that based on the number of inmates in the area who report having children, there are at least 2,000 in Mid-Michigan with an incarcerated loved one, though she believes the number to be much higher. She said studies have shown that it is much easier for the child and the parent to transition into a normal life after the loved one is released if the child has been staying in contact.

“We’re just trying to keep the connection because there are so many studies that say it’s hard for parents to relate to their child after they get out,” she said.

Saturday was the group’s second meeting. Joslin and Isiaha Eva, whose mother is in prison, each received a letter from mom telling them she loved them and missed them. Included were reminders about their grandmother’s up coming birthday and pictures drawn on the bottom of sheets of notebook paper that inspired the kids to create their own artwork to send back.

Joslin, 9 (“And a half!” she adds earnestly) shyly confessed how happy she was to hear her mom tell her she loves her, as Isiaha, 8, displayed a pen drawing of a scarecrow to volunteers.

Joslin and Isiaha live with their grandma, Lori Eva, a volunteer at the North Neighborhood Center. Eva doesn’t know when the children’s mother will come home. She takes Joslin and Isiaha to see her occasionally, but when winter comes, they won’t even be able to do that.

“We’re trying to create a small community of kids who all have a relative removed from their lives and they can communally have fun and talk about what it’s like to have a relative taken away,” Allen said. “A lot of them encounter conversations where they’re asked ‘Oh how’s your mom doing?’ and most of them don’t know because mom or dad is in prison. When that subject is bought up it can be really stressful and many kids will be judged.”

Before moving outside to the paint war, the children gathered paper, markers and craft supplies to write letters back to their loved ones. As the children wrote, they were near others who are dealing with the pangs of a missing relative and the awkwardness of explaining it.

“It’s important to establish the need for that constant communication, and once that’s established hopefully if the incarcerated individual is coming out, it won’t be like meeting a stranger for either of them,” Allen said. “The parent will have been there for the child’s successes, whether homework or sports or whatever and the child will have been in contact to hear how they’re doing.”

After the paint battle, Rogers brought out a bucket of steaming water as the kids attempted to scrub the paint off their skin.

The final piece of art produced by the paint warriors will be divided up and mailed to the kids’ parents in prison.