“No running!” says Diana Lopez, a volunteer at a summer camp organized by the non-profit Girls Embracing Mothers.
You can’t blame the young campers who take a break for their huts: the summer heat is finally coming and swimming is the next activity on deck. Previously enjoyed archery and spoken word poetry at the STEM Center of Excellence at Camp Whispering Cedars in south Dallas.
All girls wear matching t-shirts. Each has the diamond-shaped GEM logo on the front and the words “Embrace / Encourage / Empower” in pink on the back. These shirts give an idea of ââwhat else they have in common:
They were all separated from their mothers at some point by the walls of a prison.
Girls growing up with an imprisoned mother can be isolated in several ways. Their mothers are literally behind bars, often miles away and with limited opportunities to visit. Additionally, the stigma of incarceration can make them feel alone in their experience and be reluctant to talk about it.
This is where GEM comes in, offering programs to help girls build stronger relationships, not just with their mothers, but with each other as well.
The organization works with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to enable girls enrolled in their Pearl program to make longer and more consistent visits to their mothers in prison. GEM also provides transportation to these visits to Gatesville, where four of Texas’ women’s prisons are located, as well as activities such as moderated discussions and art therapy for the mothers and daughters.
The summer camp is an example of GEM’s diamond program, which provides daughters with educational activities outside of prison. This program is designed to empower girls by teaching social and practical skills, with an emphasis on science and performing arts research.
Brittany K. Barnett, a Dallas attorney, founded GEM after her own mother was incarcerated when she and her sister were in their early twenties. Barnett said this motivated her in 2013 to start a community that supports young girls with incarcerated mothers and helps break the “cycle” of incarceration for both mothers and daughters.
This cycle is capturing more and more women, both in Texas and nationally. A 2016 study by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an organization researching criminal justice issues and alternatives to incarceration, found that the number of women incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice increased 908% between 1980 and 2016, up by 81% of the 2014 figure the study interviewed women of incarcerated women who were mothers.
This rate is accompanied by an increase in incarcerated women across the country. The Sentencing Project, a research organization tracking nationwide incarceration trends, found a 700 percent increase in the number of women incarcerated between 1980 and 2019, and attributes many of those convictions to drug charges and other non-violent crimes.
“When girls succeed, so does society,” said Barnett. âI really want to empower women and girls affected by the justice system to know that they are important. You are appreciated. “
From program participant to director
Angelica Zaragoza is planning events like this year’s summer camp, which took place earlier this month. Before Zaragoza became program director in 2020, she was a GEM mother herself. She said the program inspired her to do better for herself and her daughter Jalyssa.
During a GEM sponsored visit to her daughter in 2014, Zaragoza said she had a breakthrough in rebuilding her relationship with Jalyssa. It was in an art therapy workshop; the mothers and daughters made a handicraft out of a sock.
Earlier, Zaragoza said her visits passed in “total silence”. Her daughter was injured, which Zaragoza found understandable.
But on that day: âShe just turned to me and [said], ‘Mom, I can’t do that, can you help me?’ “Said Zaragoza. âWhen she told me that, I just knew. … If I just kept fighting and only did the next right thing for the next lesson, then I knew I would get through it. “
Jalyssa, now 17, will finish high school next year. Zaragoza credits GEM for helping transform their relationship so that it is “99% better than ever”.
âToday she is counting on me. It depends on me. She asks me for advice, âsaid Zaragoza. “We have a bond that becomes unbreakable, you know, even if it’s not perfect.”
Stories like Zaragoza are not uncommon among GEM mothers, whom Barnett calls “the program’s most dedicated volunteers.”
But GEM also attracts external volunteers. One such volunteer is Sharanda Jones, who exempted Barnett from life imprisonment in 2015 for a first time drug offense without parole.
Jones said she wished she and her daughter had a program like GEM when they were first incarcerated, particularly to alleviate their daughter’s alienation.
“In the beginning, when my daughter was 8, [if sheâd] If GEM girls were around them, we would both have understood our situation better, âsaid Jones. âMy daughter could understand [there were] more girls like her. “
The girls feel these effects too. Ariel, Lopez’s daughter, was the first girl to participate in GEM while her mother was still incarcerated. She said the program played a “big role” in her life and that of her mother. Her favorite part was “the friends I make here,” she said.
Scratch the surface
Over the course of eight years, GEM has grown to a maximum of 25 girls in the Pearl program and over 60 in the Diamond program. The Pearl program now has a waiting list and is being expanded further.
However, this is not without its challenges. Evelyn Fulbright, Barnett’s mother and board member of GEM, said she remembers the days when the organization was just her, Barnett, and a van they rented to transport the girls. Funding, in particular, remains an obstacle. This likely stems from the organization’s association with detainees, she said.
“The stigma is so … thick,” said Fulbright.
Recently released people face a range of difficulties, from finding accommodation to being hired. Even GEM, which offers mothers a re-entry scholarship, is struggling to meet all of these needs.
“You need a team when you get out,” said Jones of her re-entry experience. Without a support system, âyou go back to your old ways or you just wither away. Then you have no hope. But keeping that hope means knowing that someone is out there behind you. “
For some of these mothers, GEM was that support system – and while the group couldn’t provide everything, it was a start.
You can see it in the camp. During the workshops, the mothers and adult volunteers crowd as tightly around the tables as the girls, making jokes and choking off laughter in quiet moments.
And for the mothers, there is no feeling like volunteering at camp and accompanying their daughters for the first time, Fulbright has observed over the years.
She calls it “happy ending stuff, right there”.