11/29/07 — Program to receive new grant

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Program to receive new grant

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 29, 2007 1:45 PM

A local group designed to keep at-risk youths on track will receive an additional $390,000 to assist those whose parents are in prison.

Smart Choices for Youth will receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for $130,000 annually for three years to address the needs of children in Wayne and Wilson counties.

Approximately 2 million youths in the U.S. have at least one parent in a federal or state correctional facility, said Daryl Woodard, executive director of the mentoring program.

"There are a growing number of these kids right here in Wayne County and (they) have parents right down the road but can't access them," Woodward said.

Three years ago, Woodard applied for grant funding to work with the children with one or both parents incarcerated. He was recently notified that another three-year grant has been approved.

The latest grant allows Smart Choices to double the number of children it serves, as well as to expand services to include Wilson County.

"Our goal is to get 120-130 kids of parents that are incarcerated between the two counties," Woodard said.

It is essential, he said, because the number headed to prison is not decreasing.

"More kids are being affected by parents being incarcerated, so we want to do what we can," he said.

Whether the youth's mother or father, or both, serve time locally or far away, the bottom line is that the parent is not physically around to be a role model, Woodard said. And while there is no replacement, a mentor can become a helpful substitute.

"We want to fill a void, find individuals in the community ... to help as many kids as possible," he said. "We're stepping up our efforts to help children in this community."

Woodard said he is just looking for a few good men, and women, and then a few more and a few more until each child receives a helping hand.

"We're going to faith-based organizations, churches, civic groups, and asking them to take this on as a project because of the needs of the kids in the community," he said.

"Basically all we're asking for is individuals that can spend one hour a week. They don't have to have a Ph.D. or a GED -- just a person with a caring heart that can reach out to these young people."

Children of a jailed parent suffer more than just dealing with an absence, Woodard said.

"These young people often struggle with economic, emotional burdens" as well as "academics and social things that they need to prosper," he said.

"Everybody wants to belong to something or somebody," Woodard said. "We're giving them a positive relationships with an adult that cares about them. ... As a child, they know about their parent. But they still can't touch them. That void is always going to be there, so having somebody there and giving them time is invaluable."

Providing someone to walk alongside these young people -- the grant targets ages 4-18 -- could also alleviate some social stigmas, Woodard said.

"Just because their parents are incarcerated does not make these kids bad kids. They didn't ask to be here and didn't ask their parents to be incarcerated," he said. "But we're not penalizing them. Most of the kids that we work with are very good children. We're just looking for someone to spend time with them."

Referrals come from social services, juvenile court, local law enforcement, parents and schools, Woodard said, with privacy being tantamount. Since Smart Choices offers a variety of mentoring opportunities, youths are never labeled or categorized.

With enough people working together to acknowledge this "silent population," Woodard said it could go a long way toward improving their future.

"A lot of these measures will not be seen in two months. It may take two years, 12 years down the line," he said. "I think that we can curb a lot of academic problems and behavior problems by just getting involved with these children and not stigmatizing them.

"I think if churches and civic organizations can look at this and target this population, we can change a lot of things. We can't serve all the children but we can make a dent, and that's what we're determined to do."

Besides, Woodard noted, preventing young people from choosing a path of crime, clogging up the juvenile justice system, will also benefit taxpayers.

For more information on the program or becoming a mentor, contact Woodard at 735-0008 or e-mail dwoodard@scfy.us. The Web site is www.scfy.us.