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Helping Kids With Parents In Prison


YFRIENDz is a YMCA group of 125 San Diego-area kids with parents in prison and the adults who mentor them. The group facilitates visits between the incarcerated parents and their children, and the mentors work to keep the kids themselves out of prison and be positive influences in their lives.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. When parents are sent to prison, they don’t suffer alone. The children they leave behind have to deal with losing a mother or a father from their daily lives and quite often it’s more than that. Lots of kids don’t get to visit their parents in prison or even talk to them on the phone. They’re left with a hole in their lives. Now a group in San Diego affiliated with the YMCA tries to help kids who are dealing with a parent in prison. The group is called YFRIENDz and several members of the group are joining us this morning. I’d like to welcome Stacy Dertien. She is the director of YFRIENDz. Good morning, Stacy.

STACY DERTIEN (Director, YFRIENDz): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Norissa Gastelum is a mentor with YFRIENDz. Good morning, Norissa.

NORISSA GASTELUM (Mentor, YFRIENDz): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And nine-year-old Evelyn Cebrero is one of the YFRIENDz kids, and she’s here with us in the studio today. Hi, Evelyn.

EVELYN CEBRERO (Member of YFRIENDz): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning. Now, Stacy, do we know how many kids in San Diego County are living without a parent because the parent is in prison?

DERTIEN: Currently we have identified over 15,000 children in San Diego County alone that have a parent incarcerated.

CAVANAUGH: And who do they live with?

DERTIEN: Oftentimes, a child that is living with their mother at the time of their mother’s incarceration will move to live with the grandmother. 25% of those children do live with their fathers. But we see a lot of grandmothers that have taken on several grandchildren at the time of their mother’s incarceration.

CAVANAUGH: And how about when dad goes to prison? Is it – the child usually just stays with mom?

DERTIEN: 90% of children stay with their mother when their fathers are incarcerated.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now what kind of effects do children and their teachers and their parents report about what happens when a mom or dad is sentenced to a term in prison?

DERTIEN: Children often feel left behind, they often feel abandoned. This population of kids is a lot of times a very overlooked population so it’s not uncommon for them to feel feelings of guilt, of shame, of social stigma, and not really be sure what to use as an outlet for those feelings.

CAVANAUGH: And are there also consequences academically?

DERTIEN: Absolutely. They tend to lose interest in school. It tends to get lost in the shuffle of the other things that they’re dealing with in life. Their grades tend to suffer. And just overall, school is one thing that is added to their plate of all the things that they’re already dealing with so a lot of times, you know, some of the necessities for the kids just get set to the wayside.

CAVANAUGH: Now I read that more than 50% of moms and dads in prison never get a visit from their kids. What are the reasons for that?

DERTIEN: This is true. Most parents are incarcerated over 100 miles away from their children and they’re typically – prisons are typically not accessible by public transportation so kids often do not have the financial means to be able to see their parents. They often don’t have a ride to go see their parents. And on top of that, a 15 minute phone call from prison can cost the receiver of the phone call up to $90.00.

CAVANAUGH: And that is really, I think, a really astounding statistic and it goes to show how isolating an experience it can be when your parent goes off to prison. You just don’t hear from them anymore.

DERTIEN: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Now tell us, if you would, Stacy, how does the YFRIENDz program work.

DERTIEN: YFRIENDz is a one-to-one mentoring children of prisoners program, so we match children that are affected by incarceration with caring adult mentors to meet a couple times per month for the duration of a year. Mentors and mentees typically get together for just simple activities, going to the park, going for a walk, maybe going out to eat, and just sharing some special time to talk with each other and to share their stories and learn from each other.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Stacy Dertien. She’s the director of YFRIENDz. It’s a program for kids who are dealing with a parent in prison. It’s affiliated with the YMCA. And I’d like to reintroduce now Norissa Gastelum, who is a mentor with the program, and I’m wondering, Norissa, why did you decide to become a mentor for YFRIENDz?

GASTELUM: Well, I, myself, am a child of two incarcerated parents so I know what it can be like for kids to sort of not have that immediate connection, you know, with where you came from and it’s something that I experienced but I was also really lucky enough to have my aunt to take care of me. So I just – I know what it feels like to have parents incarcerated and to not have that connection.

CAVANAUGH: And if you could, tell us a little bit, what does that feel like?

GASTELUM: Well, I didn’t really know what it meant for a long time. I didn’t talk to my mom or I didn’t know my father. And it would just be birthday cards in the mail. And my aunt—her name’s Eileen, I called her Eileenie at the time, so for awhile I didn’t – there was no one that I called mother or father. And I did feel disconnected from my friends and from other people who had those conversations about their parents.

CAVANAUGH: Now the girl that you mentor is with us. She’s nine-year-old Evelyn Cebrero. Good morning, again, Evelyn.

CEBRERO: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: You have a little cough this morning, huh?


CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, now you are a part of this program. How has knowing Norissa helped you handle your situation at home with your dad in prison?

CEBRERO: Well, she’s like a person I can talk to and we can talk about our feelings together and it just helps me with my problems.

CAVANAUGH: What do you like to do with Norissa?

CEBRERO: I like to go out with her to places…


CEBRERO: …to have fun with her, and we both have fun a lot.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think you spend more time talking with her or do you spend more time just playing around and doing things?

CEBRERO: Talking to her maybe really.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. What do you think the best part is of having Norissa as a friend? Is having those conversations?


CAVANAUGH: Well, what is it that you talk about? What’s different now with the dad gone?

CEBRERO: Well, even if my dad’s not with me, I still get to see him because he lives with my grandma and my grandpa, and Norissa is a really good help to me because she helps me with my problems.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Thank you so much – thanks for talking with us even though you have a little cold today.

CEBRERO: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Norissa, do you see changes in Evelyn since you’ve become her friend?

GASTELUM: I have, I’ve – I mean, she’s always been really outgoing but I see her confidence level sort of skyrocketing and she now knows that she’s going to go to college. We’ve visited UCSD and we’ve toured the SDSU campus and she – she knows what she wants to do now. She wants to be an art teacher. More specifically, what is it, Ev?

CEBRERO: A glass-blowing teacher.

GASTELUM: Yeah, she wants to be a glass-blowing teacher.

CAVANAUGH: A glass-blowing teacher?


CAVANAUGH: That’s specific. That’s fabulous.

GASTELUM: So I think now she definitely – We talk about college a lot. We talk about the future and she knows that she’s going to go and I try and frame her future in a world where she will go to college, not if. And so I think that she sort of has a more stable understanding of the path that she’ll have.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Stacy, I would imagine that having a YFRIENDz mentor would help the entire family and not just the particular child involved.

DERTIEN: Sure. With YFRIENDz, we also conduct group monthly events. Typically, they’re just fun experiences where we’ll take the kids to Sea World or we’ll have a Thanksgiving dinner every year. We will go to Padres games or different events in the community. And a lot of times we are able to invite the parents and family members to come along to those events and that’s a great experience for the kids because the kids have camaraderie knowing they’re in a safe place and they’re talking with other kids that share the same experience, that won’t judge them. And then also for the caregivers, they know that they’re in a place where they can share resources with each other that – where they can talk amongst each other and they can share some of their stories and support each other and in a very special way.

CAVANAUGH: And how many kids are in the mentor program now, Stacy, would you say?

DERTIEN: We currently have 140 kids matched with an adult mentor and we have about another 80 kids that are waiting to be matched with a mentor. The majority of the kids that we have waiting are boys so we are definitely in need of male mentors. We are in particular need of mentors in southeast San Diego, in South Bay and in El Cajon.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, Norissa, what would you say was the kind of time commitment and qualities that someone would need to become a mentor in this program?

GASTELUM: It’s really something that everyone can do. Evelyn and I see each other a couple times a month. We don’t do anything too difficult. We talk, we go to the park, we go on walks, sometimes we’ll just play games. You know, it’s something – you can do fun things. We’ll go bowling. Just – it’s not something that most people don’t have the time to do. It’s not a huge time commitment and you really just, you know, have to be able to, you know, have a conversation with them, and anyone can do that. So, really, if an – you know, anyone thinks that this is something they would like to do, they shouldn’t worry. They’re more than qualified.

CAVANAUGH: And I would imagine that, you know, a woman could be a mentor, certainly you must have that, to the boys in your program, but what is – what specifically would be the help of having a male mentor to a boy in the YFRIENDz program?

DERTIEN: Sure, well, oftentimes we do match female mentors with some of the younger boys in our program that maybe live with grandma and just need someone to run around with them and kick a soccer ball. But it is beneficial, especially as the boys get older to, if they have an incarcerated father, to have a male mentor, someone that they can talk to about the boy stuff and to, you know, to share with them certain things that they might not want to share with their mother or with, you know, their grandmother. So, you know, it’s beneficial just as far as them learning how to navigate today’s world and being a young man and being a upstanding young man in our community.

CAVANAUGH: Evelyn, I just want to ask you one more question. I wonder if you would recommend YFRIENDz to other kids?

CEBRERO: Yes, to – I recommended it to my friend that doesn’t have her mom or her dad living with her…


CEBRERO: …and I told her if she wanted to come and she said yes. So right now she’s not living with her parents or her mom. She lives with her uncle and her sister and her brother.

CAVANAUGH: I see. But she’s now a member of YFRIENDz.

CEBRERO: No, not yet.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, not yet. Okay, well, you’re going to have to do a little bit more…


CAVANAUGH: …suggesting there. Now if someone wants to get involved, Stacy, what is it that they should do?

DERTIEN: If someone would like to become a mentor with YFRIENDz, it’s pretty simple. Just give us a call at our YMCA office which is located in North Park, and the number there is 619-281-8313. After you’ve made your initial call to the office, we’ll invite you in for a personal one-to-one interview and also conduct a background check and an orientation and training, and from there you are able to have what we call your match meeting, which is when you’re introduced to your mentee and their parent. And then from there, you’re able to visit on your own and attend the monthly group events.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Norissa, one thing I failed to ask you is what do you get out of this?

GASTELUM: I really don’t spend a lot of time with children other than Evelyn so I get to see how amazing she is and how – just get to know her and what’s so amazing is how simple the ideas of good and bad are with her. Like right and wrong, you know. There’s so much that Evelyn just – she just knows something’s right and she stands up for it and none of it’s too, you know, convoluted or complex and so getting to learn how simple – simple these things can be sometimes, I get to learn that from her. And, yeah, she amazes me all the time.

CAVANAUGH: Fabulous. I want to thank you so much for speaking with us this morning. I’ve been speaking with Stacy Dertien. She’s the director of YFRIENDz. Norissa Gastelum is a mentor with the YFRIENDz program. And nine-year-old Evelyn Cebrero is one of the YFRIENDz kids. Thank you for talking with us, especially you, Evelyn. Thank you so much.

CEBRERO: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: Now tell us just one more time, if you would, how people might get in contact if they’re interested in becoming mentors.

DERTIEN: To become a mentor you can call YFRIENDz at the YMCA office located in North Park. And the phone number for YFRIENDz is area code 619, 281-8313.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS. Coming up, bumper sticker philosophy. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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