The children of incarcerated parents here in Central Oregon are in your kids’ classrooms, their summer camps, their sports teams. They live among us every day, despite the additional challenges they face. And they are four times more likely to end up in prison themselves.
They are also the focus of a program in Deschutes County aimed at improving the hand they’ve been dealt. It’s called the Central Oregon Partnerships for Youth (COPY).
Donovan Adkins was one of the thousands of Oregonians who did not follow the same laws the rest of us must live by and ended up in prison.
“People way worse off than I am. So I got to look at, you know, count my blessings half the time,” Donovan said.
The bottle replaced his zest for life and outran his compassion for those who needed him most.
“I take ownership about what I’ve done to my children, and sometimes as much as it hurts more, it sinks in. Because I can see it. I can see it a lot,” Donovan said.
“And lock him up, the state did — leaving his wife and two young girls to fend for themselves. It’s a fate too many Oregonians find themselves in every day.
There are at least 60,000 children across the state of Oregon who have at least one parent currently incarcerated. And that’s not just a problem for the incarcerated family. That’s a problem for all of us, because as soon as the cell door closes, it’s that child who loses that income, that influence and that companionship.
As for those children, they are much more likely to suffer failure in school, mental health crises and feelings of loneliness.
For Donovan’s 7- and 11-year-old daughters, the separation has not been easy. Feelings of abandonment, questioning the devotion of a parent. They’re both common for these kids and they see it in the parent left behind.
“She was very, very stressed that she couldn’t balance work and time with us,” said big sister Sam Adkins, referring to her mom.
“You know, it’s the financial drain on the family. It’s a financial drain from the kids to be able to do something,” said mom Sara Adkins.
What most of these families really need, they could never afford. Another adult mentor and friend for these kids — a mature presence and much more.
“These are kids that are just growing up like every other kid out in Central Oregon, except they’re dealing with some bigger issues,” said Bob Moore, COPY Project Coordinator.
Moore helped the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office launch COPY 19 years ago. It was something that had never been attempted here before.
“What we’re really looking to do is identify a stable, consistent adult to spend time with our kids out in the community,” Moore said.
Moore is responsible for recruiting these stable, consistent adults and then partnering with the community, businesses, Parks and Recreation and others who can give these kids of the incarcerated as normal a childhood as possible.
But the hundreds of people who have volunteered over the years are the glue that hold it all together.
“I saw two young girls that are so fun. They’re so energetic. They’re kind. They’re smart. They love each other. They love their mom and dad,” said Mary Stewart, a Bend labor and delivery nurse who is a COPY volunteer.
“I’ve always had a heart for children and I think I grew up with a lot of positive adults in my life. And I know the impact that a positive adult can be in a child’s life and I think just hoping to be that for somebody else,” Mary said.
Mention Mary to Donvan’s daughters, Gabby and Sam, and the connection is clear.
“She helps us when mom’s at work. And she takes us places and gives us lots of memories,” Gabby said.
“And maybe sometimes she would come take us somewhere when she came and watched us,” Sam said.
And why is that so valuable to big sister Sam?
“Because it was a sweet relief of getting a break from her without me watching her for the whole day,” Sam said.
COPY volunteers are asked to commit a couple of hours a week for about a year. Mary is now 18 months into her time with the girls, and she’ll tell you what started as a volunteer obligation quickly became an emotional connection.
“I mean, I would feel so lucky and grateful if I could be a small part of their lives for a long time,” Mary said.
And so would Sara and Donovan. Now that Donovan has been out of prison for several months, this family is rebuilding, traveling, camping and reconnecting. But they will never forget the vacancy Mary was able to fill.
“Everything happens for a reason. And you know, she was sent to us. She’s an angel,” Sarah said.
Sara admits there’s the constant fear that something will happen again. But Sam doesn’t seem worried. She believes in her dad.
“If he does it again, I’m going to be really surprised,” Sam said. “Because he promised. He promised.”
And taking a look at Donovan, she says “You promised.”
“I was able to focus more on what I needed to do when I got home. More than worrying at the time what was going on with them,” Donovan said.
And when it happens to another child — and it will — the generosity and compassion of the people of Central Oregon have been able to offer a little bit of normal for these kids — a reason to believe in themselves, despite the bad decisions of the adults they depend on.
A couple of times a year. Bob Moore holds a sort of informational training class for anyone who wants to know more about the COPY program. That next class is 9:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. at 1300 NW Wall Street in Bend. It’s a chance to find out of this is the right volunteer opportunity for you. Advance registration is required.