News (AP) - Mentor program helps kids with imprisoned parents

By Tammy Stables Battaglia

Detroit Free Press

An AP Member Exchange

HARRISON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- Ten-year-old Tarajvion (Tray) Thomas greeted Ray Lievens with the toss of a football -- an immediate invitation to play catch in his Warren front yard.

"Now you have to see me throw!" Tray said, jumping up from the couch in his living room, leading his new mentor out the front door.

Lievens said he felt like he scored a touchdown in their first meeting, an easy segue into a new Macomb County mentorship program for children who have a parent in jail, like Tray.

The Mentoring Children of Prisoners-Caregiver's Choice program, designed to offer companionship and guidance to children 4 to 18 years old, is seeking mentors and children to participate. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the program is based at the Michigan State University Extension office in Clinton Township.

"I think it's great," said Lievens, 49, of Harrison Township, about 20 miles northeast of Detroit. "I think he's obviously a very bright young man and full of energy."

Tray's mother, Tameka Thomas, watched from the front porch, glad to see the man-to-man interaction.

"He's excited about it," Thomas said. "He's an only child. He doesn't have a lot of men or male mentors in his life. So this is an excellent opportunity for him and me."

Still, she was disappointed when she realized that during the visit, Tray missed a call from the Cooper Street Correctional Facility more than 80 miles away in Jackson.

There, Tray's father, Sam Raymond, is serving a two-year sentence for having a gun during the commission of a felony in a December 2008 incident. He's scheduled to be released in April.

One in 43 American children -- 1.7 million -- had a parent in prison in 2007, according to a 2009 study by the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that looks at criminal justice issues. Studies have shown that more than half of children with incarcerated parents have had problems in school or instances of aggression -- a problem Thomas experienced with Tray shortly after his father was imprisoned.

"It was really damaging to him, because they were really, really close," Thomas said. "I'm like, 'I've got to find someone to step in.'"

After undergoing extensive background checks, mentors receive six hours of training and a $10 per visit stipend to cover gas or other minor costs, said Jan Gwozdz, the Michigan State University extension's youth mentor coordinator. The mentorship program also offers participants donated tickets to local events and attractions, such as the Detroit Zoo and sports games.

In exchange, mentors are asked to meet with the children at least an hour a week and commit at least a year to the program.

"We don't encourage them to spend a lot of money," Gwozdz said. "Time is what it's all about."

Published: Thu, Aug 12, 2010