Newly formed student organization Serving Children of Incarcerated Parents welcomed interested students, faculty and members of the Oxford community to its kickoff meeting April 17.
Deetra Wiley, a UM doctoral candidate and staff member of the Office of Information Technology, is the advisor of Serving Children of Incarcerated Parents and heads the program alongside Asya Branch, a sophomore integrated marketing communications major and president and founder of the group.
By forming this organization, Ms. Wiley and Ms. Branch intended to draw attention to families, and more specifically to children that have been affected by the incarceration of relatives.
Branch began Tuesday’s meeting by describing what gave her the idea to start the organization.
Branch was named UM’s Most Beautiful as well as Miss Tupelo, and as a part of holding these titles, she was required to pick a platform to support. As a 10-year-old Branch experienced the effects of parental incarceration firsthand when her father was taken from her home. Because of her background and connection with the issue, she decided she “wanted to be involved with people going through similar things.”
Branch described her work with children of incarcerated parents, visiting local schools to tell her story.
“When I go to the schools, one of the things I do is read a children’s book I authored,” Branch said. “It opens up the gates for conversation with the children because it helps them feel connected and not judged.”
Wiley described what it was like having an incarcerated parent and spoke about how it inspired her to focus her research efforts on children of incarcerated parents as she pursues her doctorate.
“He is still the most important person in my life — I continued to love and admire him and accepted the fact he was incarcerated and did not let it get in my way,” Wiley said of her father who was killed in a tragic car accident later in life.
Wiley described her visits with her father in various prisons and jails throughout her childhood, remembering how he always used to put a Bible in front of her whenever she saw him.
Wiley started what she calls “Straight Talk” as a ways of remembering the impact these visits had on her. Upon seeing that some of the children in her local church seemed to be dealing with so many issues at school, including one of the kids sharing that she had an incarcerated parent, Wiley saw a need for her “Straight Talk” group.
Wiley utilizes this program to spend time with members of her church, speak with them about their lives and well-being and find Bible verses that help them cope with what they are experiencing.
Because of her father’s impact on her throughout life, Wiley also hopes to bring more attention to the parents in jail though her church’s monthly jail ministry as well as their children through SCIP.
Branch has reached out to parents in local jails, attempting to connect with them and listening to their stories. She implored the parents to reach out to their children and emphasized the importance of cultivating a connection with their children.
One obstacle keeping incarcerated parents from forming those important connections is their inability to afford the necessary supplies to write letters to their children. To mitigate this issue, Branch started the “Love Letters” program, through which she facilitated donations of paper, envelopes and stamps to incarcerated parents, enabling them to reach out to their children and rekindle their connection.
Though Tuesday’s kickoff meeting was only intended to establish the purpose of Serving Children of Incarcerated Parents and gather information from those interested in participating, Wiley and Branch have big dreams for the program.
Along with continuing the programs they have already started, Wiley and Branch plan to institute service projects for children of incarcerated parents in the Oxford area and increase the involvement of the campus counseling center with Ole Miss students who are also affected by this problem. They want to facilitate more meetings with children at local schools and, as Wiley says, “meet the children where they are” in an effort to make them feel more comfortable with talking about their situation.
Still a relatively new organization, Serving Children of Incarcerated Parents is inviting any and all people who are interested to become members. Anyone interested in making a positive difference in the lives of the youth who need it most are welcome.
Above all, the new organization aims to provide children with the vital connections they need to fully live their lives despite the hardships they have been forced to face.
Though Wiley and Branch hope to eventually extend the group’s influence past the boundaries of Oxford and, perhaps, collaborate with other universities, Wiley said they must “take care of home first.”