Mentors needed

The Central Oregon Partnerships for Youth program is seeking adult volunteers to mentor children with a parent in prison or jail. For more information, call 541-388-6651.

Since Jo Edwards was 8 years old, she’s spent a few hours every week with a mentor who would eventually become much more than that. They’ve hiked and bowled. Canned pickles and baked cookies.

As Edwards grew up, Alicia Moore was there with her to browse bookshelves, cross-country ski, scour the pumpkin patch for a Halloween jack-o’-lantern, make Valentine’s Day cards for Edwards’ classmates, and work on Edwards’ reading skills at a Whole Foods cafe. They once attended a formal dinner and afterward, a performance by the Central Oregon Symphony.

Edwards met Moore 13 years ago through a mentorship program that pairs adult volunteers with the children of incarcerated parents. Edwards grew up as part of a hidden population in Deschutes County: the 350 children with at least one parent in prison or jail. In Edwards’ case, both parents spent long spells locked up.

Children of incarcerated parents face many challenges, and Edwards has been through a lot in her 21 years. But she credits her relationship with Moore with giving her the stability to get where she is today.

Edwards knows her biological mother loves her, but her mother’s choices have kept them apart.

“The biggest figure in my life has been Alicia,” Edwards said.

In 2005, Moore worked in the administration at Central Oregon Community College. After a few years, she’d be promoted to the position she’s at today: dean of students. When Moore and Edwards started meeting, the girl’s father had recently been sent to prison, and her mother had just been released.

Edwards isn’t sure what her parents did to earn their prison sentences — she said she’d rather not know every detail. (According to public records, Edwards’ parents have sex-related convictions to their names; she wasn’t the victim in either case.)

Despite her record of bad decisions, Edwards’ mother was effective at securing the social services available to her two youngest daughters, Jo and Vicky. One of those was the COPY program, which pairs “safe and appropriate” mentors with the children of incarcerated adults.

Mental health professionals consider having a parent in prison to be an “adverse childhood experience.” And the more adverse childhood experiences a child faces, the greater the risk of facing emotional, social and physical problems, according to social worker Renelle Taylor, who for more than 20 years has counseled children at risk of losing a home or school placement in Deschutes County.

Watching a parent be taken away can be traumatic for a child, Taylor said.

“It’s more than just the stigma of having a parent who’s incarcerated. It affects on an emotional level as well,” said Taylor, who works for Deschutes County Intensive Youth Services. “And often, leading up to the incarceration, these children have experienced more than any child should.”

The more than 2.7 million children in the United States with a parent in prison are said to experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and emotional withdrawal. They often struggle in school and have difficulty maintaining relationships. These factors put them at risk of repeating the mistakes their parents made.

Bob Moore has been director of the COPY program since it began in 2004 with a three-year federal grant. Edwards’ mother was one of the first to sign up.

Bob Moore said much thought goes into finding a good match for mentor and child. When Edwards first crossed his path — bright and confident but with a highly unstable home life — he immediately thought of his wife, Alicia.

At 8, Edwards was beginning to speak up for herself, Alicia Moore remembers.

“I was incredibly impressed,” she said. “She was much more savvy about life and what was happening in her family situation than I would have imagined she could have been given her young age.”

This isn’t unusual, according to Bob Moore. Many children with a parent in prison have experienced several big transitions in their lives.

“When weird stuff blows up, a lot of times, my volunteers will freak the heck out,” he said. “And a lot of the time, I’ll have kids like Jo who are dealing with this super heavy-duty stuff, and they just roll with it. Because it’s kind of a normal day for them.”

When Edwards was born, her father was in prison. Shortly afterward, her mother got arrested and sent there, too. Edwards and her sister were assigned to various foster homes. While her mother was going through court-ordered rehab, Edwards lost her first teeth and spoke her first words.

When she was 5, Edwards “met” her mom. The first stop for mother and daughters was Healy Heights Apartments, a government-subsidized housing complex south of Bear Creek in Bend. After a year without employment or education, and being given several extensions, Edwards’ mother was forced to leave Healy Heights.

The three of them moved to a house near Alfalfa, where Edwards’ mother got involved with an ex-boyfriend. She started blowing all her money and not paying bills, and they were again forced to move.

They landed at Nancy’s House, a transitional shelter in Bend for mothers and children. But again, their mother “didn’t do what she needed to do,” according to Bob Moore.

They bounced around to various shelters. Then, one Friday about 4 p.m., Bob Moore got a phone call as he was driving to Bend from Salem. A shelter that had just accepted Edwards’ mother didn’t take children.

Edwards needed a place to stay, but there wasn’t much time before the weekend.

She ended up spending the weekend at Bob and Alicia Moore’s house.

Edwards’ mother continued to spiral out of control, in part because of her relationship with her ex-boyfriend. The ex had sex offenses and other convictions on his record, and although she was young, Edwards spoke up and told her mother they should leave the situation.

Her mother didn’t listen, and soon, she was arrested and charged with, among other things, exposing Edwards to the ex-boyfriend.

This was around the time Edwards’ father was about to be released from prison. Edwards was 12 and hadn’t lived with him since she was a baby.

His parole officer helped expedite his re-integration into society. With his criminal record, it took legal wrangling to allow him to live in a house with children, even his own.

A lot of people get out of prison and try to take shortcuts, Bob Moore said. They might drive without insurance, or refuse to take a menial job when it’s all that’s available. But Edwards’ father got out and “did everything right.”

He took a low-paying job and paid his bills. He obeyed the law and, when he had spare time, worked on cars to earn extra money. He eventually was able to buy a house where he and his daughters lived.

This brief period was the most stable of Edwards’ childhood, but it was tragically cut short during her junior year of high school. Her father died of a heart attack in his sleep.

Bob and Alicia Moore said Edwards’ father, though “rough around the edges,” did right by his daughters after prison. He even took out a life insurance policy shortly before he died.

Edwards said despite his faults, her father never blamed his hardships on others.

“He used say, ‘I have to put back together the family I broke,’” she said.

It was difficult the first few times Edwards visited her mother in prison. One reason was her mother never seemed able to accept responsibility for being locked up, Edwards said.

“I was always a mommy’s girl,” she said. “But seeing her in there really put it all in perspective. It’s like my dad said, ‘You have to face up to your consequences.’ She just didn’t want to do it.”

These days, Edwards’ mother lives out of state. Edwards said she loves her but chooses not to speak to her.

“She broke that trust,” she said.

One of the first things Alicia Moore taught Edwards was that words matter. She told her not to use “hate” unless she meant it. She was surprised how well the lesson stuck.

One time, Moore was riding in a car with Edwards, then 10, and her sister. Her sister said she hated Brussels sprouts.

Edwards turned around and said: “When we’re with Alicia, we don’t talk like that.”

“I was like, ‘Wow,’” Moore said. “‘She is listening.’”

Edwards said it was always nice having a person in her life who understood her problems and always listened to her.

“Alicia always seemed like she was in a good mood when she was around me,” she said. “She was always happy, so that made me happy.”

For Moore, who doesn’t have children, mentoring Edwards is “one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

“If anyone is on the fence about whether serving as a mentor is worthwhile, I would, without a doubt, say yes,” she said.

As director of the COPY program, Bob Moore oversees 44 mentorship pairs. His work is aided greatly by donations from local businesses, he said. These enabled many of the experiences Edwards and Moore shared. But there’s a lot of stuff a couple of people can do for free around Bend, they said.

They spent a summer visiting every park in Bend — a different one each week. Ten-year-old Edwards was the designated map-reader and in-car navigator.

They once attended a wolf rehabilitation presentation at High Desert Museum and Edwards went nose-to-nose with a wolf.

“The look on Jo’s face was amazing,” Alicia Moore said.

Over the years, they frequently spent time working on Edwards’ reading. She was diagnosed in elementary school with a learning disability, and reading is probably her greatest struggle, Moore said.

Edwards was in a car accident in high school and as a result, she struggled with short-term memory loss, which Moore thinks exacerbated her reading challenges. She recently took an adult basic-education course, not because she needed to, but because it would help her. Moore, who used to pay Edwards for getting good grades, said she’s seen a “dramatic turnaround” in Edwards’ reading skills in the last few months.

“She still struggles, and will continue to do so, but having a strong foundation and intensive time focused on this definitely made a difference,” Moore said.

Taylor, the Deschutes County therapist, said mentorships are “invaluable.”

“It provides stability for these kids, and they’ve had a lot of instability,” she said. “Mentors show you that you’re worth the time and effort, and it helps the child feel like they matter. They maybe don’t have a trusting relationship with their primary caregiver. A mentorship can exemplify a healthy relationship, which is something that these children typically haven’t seen before.”

One of Edwards’ favorite teachers at Redmond High School, Scott Brown, had a classroom saying that’s stuck with her: “Never assume. When you assume, you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘U’ and “me.’”

Brown, who teaches at Silver Lake High School, said the phrase is meant to reinforce to his geometry students the importance of using basic logic, in math as well as in everyday life. Edwards likes it because people might hear about her background and assume she’s a bad person.

In fact, Edwards and her sister were the first people in their family to graduate from high school. Edwards doesn’t use drugs, has never been in trouble with the law, and although she’s old enough to drink alcohol, prefers not to.

She attends Central Oregon Community College and is on her way to a degree in early childhood education. She meets regularly on campus with the dean of students to track her progress and discuss her goals. One is to work with children with disabilities. Her nephew has a rare genetic condition, and Edwards said there’s something appealing about helping a child with significant needs.

She wants to mentor a child with a parent in prison, just like her mentor did. She thinks she has a lot to offer someone going through the same things she went through. And she wants to be that supportive adult to a child who needs it.

For now, though, she wants to get through school.

“I say, no matter what gets put in your way, you can overcome it,” Edwards said. “It just takes time.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,