Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) has a history extending more than 100 years, while its San Diego County (SDC) chapter has been in operation for more than 55 years. During this time, the SDC chapter has worked to make meaningful one-on-one mentor matches between children ages 7 through 18 and adult volunteers. The purpose of pairing these “Littles” and “Bigs,” as they are known respectively in BBBS, is to instill self-confidence and support personal and educational growth among young people who face adversity and other life challenges. One of the ways BBBS of SDC attempts to enact such change is through its Amachi program.
Providing Support for Children with Incarcerated Parents
A West African term, amachi translates to “who knows but what God has brought us through this child.” In that vein, the BBBS Amachi program seeks to empower children with incarcerated parents to broaden their outlook on life and reach their full potential. This is accomplished by pairing children with role models who have diverse life experiences—however, a particular emphasis is placed upon mentors from religious organizations.
The national Amachi organization was established in Philadelphia in 2000 by University of Pennsylvania professor of politics, religion, and civil society John DiIulio, with support from Public Private Ventures, Pew Charitable Trust, and BBBS. Its ties to faith and religion remain intact as former Philadelphia Mayor Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode, Sr., serves as the organization’s president.
The BBBS SDC Amachi program launched in 2006 and recruits dedicated volunteers through partnerships with local faith-based groups and nonprofit organizations to serve some of the 15,000+ children in San Diego who have at least one parent in prison. Often, the parent or guardian will apply directly to BBBS in search of a positive influence on their child. BBBS of SDC makes every effort to let them know their child is receiving much-needed support and guidance. Prospective mentors must be at least 18 years old and commit to the program for at least one year.
Created with Assistance from the Cohn Family
BBBS of SDC was able to implement the Amachi program in 2006 thanks to support from the Cohn family, which owns and operates the Cohn Restaurant Group. David and Lesley Cohn opened their first restaurant in San Diego in 1981 and now own 24 dining operations in Southern California and Maui. Their two children, Jessica and Jeremy, and son-in-law Mike, help with business operations.
While their restaurants have earned numerous awards over the years, the Cohn family prides itself on its philanthropic activity. In addition to facilitating the launch of the BBBS of SDC’s Amachi program, they support hundreds of local charities per year.
The Amachi Training Institute
BBBS isn’t the only organization that offers the Amachi program to support the personal development of children with incarcerated parents. There are approximately 7.3 million children in the US with incarcerated parents, and effective intervention through one-on-one mentoring is crucial. As a result, Amachi, Inc. operates the Amachi Training Institute, which has provided one-and-a-half day intensive training programs to more than 800 organizations in 47 states.
Serving as an introduction to the Amachi model, the institute teaches organizations how to effectively recruit pastors and other volunteers through role-playing sessions. Guest speakers also lead workshops on topics like record keeping, data collection, and making and maintaining mentor matches.
How Having Incarcerated Parents Can Impact Children
Beyond the hardship of having to be separated from a parent, children of incarcerated individuals are at higher risk of experiencing trauma. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, trauma occurs “from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
Working with children in this situation requires mentors to take a trauma-informed approach. Mentors must acknowledge the traumatic experiences suffered by these children, as well as the role these experiences have played in shaping their lives. Without support systems like Amachi and other interventions, studies have shown that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to be exposed to violence and drug and alcohol abuse.
Other Resources for Mentoring Children with Incarcerated Parents
Volunteering as a mentor with BBBS of SDC’s Amachi program requires a greater understanding of trauma and the particular challenges encountered by children with incarcerated parents. Fortunately, there are numerous resources available to help shape prospective Bigs’ relationships with Littles whose parent(s) are incarcerated.
Youth.gov directs individuals to a number of these resources, including articles like “The Antisocial Behavior of the Adolescent Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Developmental Perspective” and “Effects of Parental Incarceration on Young Children.” Other valuable resources include the American Psychological Association’s Resilience Booster: Parent Tip Tool, which provides models on how to improve resilience among children in various settings, and the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated.