With Rising Incarceration Rates, Children Of Inmates Seek Respite In Camp
Kristen Harlin speeds a golf cart through the grassy fields overlooking Lake Texoma in Kingston. It’s muggy and hot and the sun is relentless. Harlin is the executive director of New Day Camp, a summer camp for children with incarcerated parents.
“All the campers here have the same, common thing going on in their life (sic). So if you get that stigma gone right away, they don't feel like they're the different person in the cabin,” Harlin says.
Leaders address incarceration as soon as kids step off the bus. Then it’s onto normal camp activities.
Sticking to a schedule
Harlin steers the golf cart past a group of kids around 12 years old. They’re hunkered down in a little patch of shade, resting quietly after hours on a ropes course.
“The busier you keep teenagers, the less problems you have,” Harlin says.
The packed schedule gives campers the structure they may lack back home. It’s a respite for a lot of them.
Kids learn to swim in the lake. They can go boating or mountain biking on nearby trails. Campers who are 14 years old spend a night camping in the open air, away from the musty cabins down the road. They’re busy from dawn until dusk.
“We don't to make these kids feel like they don't fit in the world because of their parents,” counselor DonteChattman says. “You’re still a kid,” he adds.
Breaking the cycle
Chattman knows the stigma that can accompany having a parent in prison. His dad was locked up when Donte was in third grade. He first went to New Day when he was 11.
“The first year, the very first year I cried. I cried like a baby,”
He didn’t want to go home. Chattman came back every summer. New Day only accepts campers between 8 and 14 years old; so when he turned 15, Chattman started as a counselor. He’s 19 now and still sweating it out at Lake Texoma.
“I just promised myself that whenever I was a kid, they were always here for me, so I’d always make sure to give back. I just know where some of these kids come from, so I try to look at it that way,” he says.
New Day attendance is down. Fewer than 150 kids showed up this summer. That’s far less than one percent of the estimated number of children in Oklahoma with a parent currently behind bars, according to a recent report by the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.
“We're losing kids. I don't like that,” Chattman says. “I want to get as many kids here as possible because I know there are more kids that are going through the things these kids go through.”
Over the past three decades, Oklahoma’s incarcerated population ballooned nearly 500 percent while the general adult population increased by 34 percent. As the prison population skyrockets, so does the number of kids affected. The Annie E. Casey Foundation published a study earlier this year showing 1 in 10 Oklahoma children has had an incarcerated parent at one point during childhood.
“About 95 percent of the men in our program are dads,” says Kris Steele from The Employment and Education Ministry, a nonprofit aiming to bridge the gaps to reentry for offenders.
“That child often experiences confusion, embarrassment, resentment, anger. It definitely has a bearing and it has an impact,” he says.
Steele has spent summers at New Day as a counselor over the years. He says having a chance to unplug is crucial for the campers.
“They get to be a kid. They get to interact in very positive, pro-social ways with their peers without being judged or having some label assigned to them. They just get to be a kid for a week,” Steele says.
There are tens of thousands of children who would qualify for a camp like this. But New Day’s Kristen Harlin says it can be hard to track them down because of things like transient housing.
“Right now, it's been word of mouth and a few websites, we just need to work on getting the word out a little bit better,” Harlin says.
Donte Chattman says it’s more than that. Going to camp for the first time can be a difficult hurdle.
“At first, I was terrified. I didn't know what to expect,” Chattman says about his first summer.
He didn’t want to connect with a counselor who he would have to leave in just a few days. Now, he makes sure his campers don’t share the same fear.
“You just don't want to come into these kids lives for a week and then the other 350-something days you don't have an impact on 'em.”
Chattman reached down and tugged on a woven anklet tied around his right leg as kids called for him to rejoin the group. A camper made it for him, and he never takes it off. It’s stability, he says, for both him and his campers.