Providing hope and support to children of prisoners
Editor’s note: We are honored to have the commentary of Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode, Sr. which also appears in the publication “The Least of These: Amachi and the Children of Prisoners.
In a spiritual sense, I have felt an obligation to work on behalf of this invisible population: the children of inmates. And I believe the route of my earlier journey—in public service as chairman of the Public Utility Commission, managing director of the City of Philadelphia and then a two-term mayor—prepared me to lead Amachi to success.
This journey has also been like a dream. I know it happened, but I can’t quite explain how it was done. I did not start out to create a national program; I just wanted to help a few thousand children over a few years to stay out of jail. I wanted to demonstrate that parents in prison for the most part loved their children and wanted the best for them. I wanted to prove that if one adult mentored one child, for one hour, once a week for at least one year, we could change the outcome for that child. I wanted to demonstrate that people of faith could add value to the lives of these children.
But sometimes the journey we set out on takes unexpected and positive turns. And this is precisely what happened with me and Amachi. All I really wanted to do was to help these children. So I spent 12- to 14-hours days, 7 days per week, in the first two years to ensure that we succeeded in Philadelphia. But along the way, I learned a valuable lesson: These are lives, and when a problem is so compelling, the mere description of that problem will bring a large and passionate response.
And that is precisely what happened at the Large Agency Alliance meeting of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) in Denver, Colorado, in 2003. It reminded me of an old-time revival in the country church that I grew up attending. I know I had a written speech, but I do not recall reading it, nor do I recall every one of the words I spoke on that day. Yet before I knew it, people were openly crying and walking up and hugging me. Some were unable to speak, and all of them seemed visibly moved by my words. All seemed to want to go back and do something. I knew, then, that Amachi was something more than a little program in four sections of Philadelphia. I knew then that it would be a national movement.
This was confirmed a year later when I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the First Annual Mentoring Children of Prisoners Grantees meeting. I reviewed the history of Amachi and the critical plight of children of prisoners. I challenged the grantees to meet the children where they were, and told them they had an obligation to help these children succeed and avoid prison.
The message resounded deeply, and they were prepared for the closing of the speech.
I told them they were like the priests who were with Joshua when they were about to leave the wilderness and enter the Promised Land. The priests (grantees) were told to proceed through the Jordan River, even though it was flood season and, in spots, the river was 40-feet deep. But God told the priests that as soon as their feet touched the water, he would stop its flow and they could safely leave the wilderness and enter the Promised Land.
But the priests did not first enter the Promised Land. They stood flat-footed in the riverbed (on the floor of the Jordan River) until all of the children had left the wilderness and entered the Promised Land. So, I raised the question: Is there anyone here who will stand with me symbolically in the riverbed, until all the children of inmates can enter their Promised Land? Dozens of people started coming one at a time until everyone in the room had left their seats, cheering, crying and affirming these children by their actions.
This became known as the “Riverbed Speech,” and it was repeated over and over again by recruiting volunteers. I would visit prisons to talk to the incarcerated parents, especially mothers, and I would always start every speech to these parents with these words: “I am here on behalf of your children. I am here to represent them because they cannot come here to represent themselves. I am here to advocate for them.” Parents had an overwhelming response to this message, and about 200,000 children were ultimately recruited.
And indeed, Amachi became a national movement that would take me into more than
120 cities in 42 states, while visiting 131 prisons in 41 states. During this time, I logged more than 500,000 frequent flyer miles. I spoke at annual meetings and fundraising events for the national BBBS organization. I spoke at meetings for various agencies to help them raise money.
Each speech at a fundraising event or annual meeting would start with: “I went to a prison, and I saw in that prison a grandfather, a father and a grandson—all in the same prison at the same time. They met for the first time in prison. As I was leaving, the grandson pulled me aside and said, ‘I have a son that I have never seen. Do you think I will see him for the first time in here?’” I would remind them of the coincidence that it was possible to have four generations of the same family in prison at the same time. I would conclude my speech with the riverbed analogy.
As the Amachi work took me from city to city, I felt I was on a spiritual journey. I felt I was in complete harmony with God’s calling in this season of my life. I felt everything I had ever done prepared me for this moment. So, what do I make of all this? Lives have been changed forever, including mine. Systems have been transformed, and a group of children who were invisible are on the public agenda in every state. The name Amachi is uttered with pride from the lips of federal officials, governors, mayors, mega-church pastors, BBBS agencies, incarcerated parents and their children. An idea from the brain of
John DiIulio has borne fruit and transformed the lives of millions of children.
The Amachi program, first established in 42 Philadelphia congregations, has now been brought to scale in institutions in every state of the nation. So what’s next? The Amachi program (now Amachi, Inc.) is evolving still. It is in the hearts and souls of millions of children across the country—though, for now, an important source of federal program funds for children of prisoners has disappeared.
Still, there are support opportunities with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which is providing funding to expand statewide efforts on behalf of these children. And now, resources from the Department of Defense are being used to extend the work to children of families with parents on deployment.
Many states and cities will continue their work using local funding. Some of the agencies will use private dollars to fund their ongoing services to at-risk children. Amachi, Inc., continues to raise money so that these children will never again be forgotten.
So, I will continue to stand in the riverbed until all children of prisoners have left their wilderness experience and crossed safely into their Promised Land. To achieve this, I will remain a passionate advocate for these once invisible children. I am convinced that we can provide them hope and support so that, when someone asks, “How are the children?” the response will be, “The children are well.”