Ivy Leaf - Winter 2010
Tuesdays with Adrianne and Jessalyn
By Shari R. Routch
In spring 2009, Adrianne Brown was going through some changes. A junior majoring in Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS), Brown "was broadening my perspective of the world and my community. I wanted to try to find a way to get involved with the community while I was still in college; I didn't want to wait until I graduated."
Enter Lee Ann De Reus, associate professor of human development and family studies and women's studies. "I was wondering how I could get involved right now, and Lee Ann mentioned that women prisoners in Blair County were requesting parenting classes," states Brown. At first nervous about the possibility of working in the prison, Brown suggested that another student work with her on the project. De Reus agreed, "with the caveat that it was someone who was really interested in the same things as Brown and who really felt that they could make a difference."
Jessalyn Kenner, a senior HDFS major, has always been interested in the prison system. "Something has always drawn me toward the study of the criminal mind. I would watch documentaries on A&E and know that I wanted to work in a prison and be a case worker or counselor," states Kenner. When De Reus and Brown approached her about conducting an independent study in the Blair County prison, Kenner jumped at the opportunity. "This is exactly what I want to do," states Kenner. "I want to make a difference and, even if it's just six to twelve girls who we're teaching, it reaches even further because it will affect their children, and their children's children."
At the end of September, Brown and Kenner met with Treatment Supervisor Abby Tate at the prison, along with a representative from Blair County Children and Youth Services. The meeting proved to be quite unsettling for the pair. "She showed us the room we would be in and it was so tiny," recalls Kenner. "Then she showed us the button to push in case of an emergency. The building was so intimidating. When I walked out I thought, 'what am I getting myself into?'"
Brown concurs. "The area we had to walk through to get to our classroom went past the male prisoners and the walls were made of glass. They stood right by the window, staring at us. That was something we really had to get used to."
The parenting sessions that Brown and Kenner conducted were Tuesday evenings; the first session was October 6, 2009, with thirteen women present. When they first walked into the room, Kenner was visibly nervous. "I was sitting next to one of the prisoners, and she kept watching me out of the corner of her eye," states Kenner. "We were reading from a book and I'm sure she could tell my voice was quivering. And out of nowhere, she asked me 'are you guys scared to come here?'"
"I thought about denying it, but I told her the truth — that I was really scared. And from that point on, I loosened up because they made us feel so comfortable," says Kenner. "When we walked into that room that night, I had butterflies in my stomach, but when I left I felt awesome!"
De Reus accompanied Brown and Kenner for the first two sessions and offered valuable perspective to the two students. While Brown and Kenner originally planned on conducting the sessions from the front of the room, De Reus suggested that they sit at the table with the women. Brown notes that it was good advice. "I had never really thought about the power in a room. It was my instinct to put a barrier there to let the women know that we were the authority in the room, and they should take information from us," says Brown. "But sitting at the table with the women has made all the difference in the world. It reinforced that we were there to listen and help, not just to be another authority in their lives. I think that's why they were so receptive to us."
The weekly sessions included journaling and a lot of Q&A time. Both students have been delighted with the responsiveness of the group. "You can tell that they are not using this class as a way to get out of their cells," notes Kenner. "We give them notebooks so they can jot down questions they think of during the week, and they do come back in with questions." The college students offer answers based on what they have learned in their courses and take back questions to De Reus that they cannot answer on their own.
Brown notes that their questions often deal with life after prison. "A lot of their concerns about their children have to deal with their transition back to being the primary caregiver," she states. "They are nervous that they will not have their children's respect and love anymore. And they're nervous that their kids have gotten better now that they are living with grandmothers and foster parents; they're nervous that they are going to come in and mess up their lives again."
Both Brown and Kenner feel that they have learned as much from this experience as the women they counsel. Brown has had her eyes opened to the prison system. "I am surprised at the lack of counseling services for these women. They really don't get the time to vent their feelings and frustrations; they keep so much inside," she states. "They are left to sit and feel guilty and angry about their situation, rather than receive training on how to make better decisions and deal with stress. These are the areas they should be addressing while they are in prison, so that when they are back in the world, facing all the temptations that got them there in the first place, they will have the tools to prevent it from happening again."
Kenner also learned a valuable personal lesson — not to judge others. "This class has taught me not to judge people for mistakes that they have made. I went in there thinking that these women were going to be hard individuals, but that's not the case. They break down and cry and hug and support each other. It's hard to judge people like that."
Brown's experience has helped her reflect on her own life. "I've really been thinking about how I've been given this lucky hand in life," she states. "This class has really taught me to think about how life isn't fair; these women were born into these families where this is what you do. They didn't have the support system or an individual encouraging them to break out of it."
"The personal component that I've learned is that I am very grateful for my upbringing and for my opportunities," Brown adds. "And I've learned that I want to help those who have not been given the same life as mine."
De Reus speaks highly of her students and the program's impact. "I am so proud of Adrienne and Jessalyn," she remarks. "This experience moved them and me out of our comfort zones, but for all the right reasons. The beauty of what's happening here is the reciprocal relationship created and the mutual empowerment of everyone in the class — including Jessalyn and Adrienne. Engaging marginalized populations such as the women at the prison is some of the most meaningful and important work we do in HDFS."
Both young women looked forward to Tuesdays and were not anxious for the experience to be over. "I know I'm going to miss them," states Kenner. "It's been a great experience. I feel like I'm teaching them a lot, but I think they are teaching me even more. They have helped shape my views on many things. I really see this as a mutual lesson that we're giving to each other."
De Reus is optimistic about the future of the program. "We look forward to continuing this program and getting more students involved," she states. "Eventually, I'd like to offer a similar parenting program for the incarcerated men but led by two male HDFS students."
Importantly, this opportunity has solidified Kenner's career goals. "I always thought that I wanted to work in a prison and this confirmed it. I have found my calling and it feels great."