Education Opinion

Open-Hearted Work

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 23, 2014 5 min read
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For most of us, this season is one of joy, hope, and celebration. We find our way to light the darkness. Often, as the holiday approaches, we find ourselves thinking about the less fortunate and our care and concern turn to charity and selflessness. We may donate gifts, clothes, food, money, and time to children and families in need. Schools, neighborhoods, hospitals, nonprofit organizations and houses of worship focus our attention on those whose needs are greater than our own. It is important, especially for the children.

This year, increasingly, books and articles offered new information about the impact poverty has on children’s lives. There is unfolding a new understanding about the multiple gaps in their environment that contribute to their struggles these little ones bring to school. Hopefully, it inspired more of us to take compassionate, determined action to make a difference in their lives.

Sometimes, the experience of poverty is accompanied by a family member being incarcerated. A New York Daily News article reported that women in Rikers’ Island, one of New York City’s largest prisons receive half of the visits the men receive and that...

Experts say the disparity is reflected at jails and prisons nationwide. And the lack of visits has an adverse effect on female inmates. They’re generally wracked with guilt, having deserted children and family.

Though this article is several years old, its message has stayed with us. Hence, our interest in an extraordinary place in Long Island City, New York which came to our attention in this season of abundance. “Hour Children” is dedicated to incarcerated mothers and their children. It supports the children and helps rebuild the lives of their mothers. These women suffer the loss of their children, they are often lacking a high school diploma, work skills, parenting skills, and a family network for support. Hour Children’s families are overwhelmingly people of color: 56% are African American, 26% Latina, and 18% white. More than 80% have a childhood history of physical and sexual abuse and 82% are identified as substance abusers. The average level of education is 7th grade.

The organization’s name reflects the belief that the lives of these children are formed around three hours: the hour of the mother’s arrest, the hour that the children may be able to visit her and the hour of her release. You may be familiar with this program because Sister Teresa Fitzgerald, the founder of the program, is a CNN Hero.

Their results speak strongly, “Hour Children’s recidivism rate is 3.5%, significantly lower than the 39.9% published by NYS.”

How Can We Replicate Their Results?
Might we learn from Hour Children and think about how their model makes a successful difference? Some among us have already become a community school, housing social services, medical services, mental health services, after school programs, parenting classes, and the like. Others of us have developed an understanding for the need and acknowledge the advantage for families and children but think there are no resources for this to happen.

As with all things, first steps include understanding the experience of others, no matter who they are and what their circumstances might be. It doesn’t matter what opens our hearts as long as we allow them to be opened. Whether it is the plight of incarcerated mothers, children of incarcerated parents, poverty, physical and mental illness, the loss of a relative, compassion and the courage to act on it begin within opened hearts.

If educating the “whole child” is becoming a central theme in the work of schools, we must know the whole child: the whole child includes their family life circumstances, their needs, feelings, and experiences. To affect them might require us to allow ourselves to feel what it is like to live in a vulnerable place. During this season of joy and abundance, change of pace and time to reflect upon our work and choices, let your heart drift to those who are living differently from you. And remember, most of us have these children in our schools, some more than others but each one needs us.

As you begin that reflection, we invite you to consider the Core Values of Hour Children and how congruent they are with the values you hold and those present in your school.

Capacity for Change: We believe in the capacity of all persons to change for the better.

Dignity and Respect: We believe in the inherent worth of all human beings; that all persons deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Through our programs, communications, and everyday interactions we strive to affirm the dignity, potential, and contribution of our participants, board, donors, staff, volunteers, partners and the larger community.

Diversity: We embrace, encourage and support diversity. Our staff and our participants have diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, beliefs, perspectives, and lifestyles. We believe diversity is a source of strength and pride and an essential part of who we are and how we operate.

Personalized Service: We believe “one Size” does not fit all. We strive to personalize our services to meet the unique strengths and needs of each of our participants. We believe our participants deserve personalized services and that customized services will lead to better and more sustainable positive outcomes.

Accountability and Responsibility: We believe that fostering an environment in which participants and staff are held accountable for their actions will lead to more effective programs and better outcomes. Hour Children is accountable to our participants and donors to do our best to fulfill our mission. We hold our participants accountable to do their best to achieve their goals and make positive changes in their lives.

Hour Commitment Starts Inside: Our presence and services inside the prisons and jails provide hope, encouragement and support. We believe this can lead to a more successful transition into the community and better outcomes for our participants.

Teaching and leading is a calling. Children fuel educators to come to work each and every day to do hard and meaningful work. The success of Hour Children rests in their values, the personal dedication of those who work there, but also the systemic design of their program. How we live and use our lives matters. To serve the whole child demands that teachers and leaders develop a relationship with each child, with his and her pain and joy, fears and dreams. Our choice to be in this work is a commitment to making systemic decisions that help every child dream big and create a new reality in which those dreams come true. We hope these holidays and the new year take you on a journey of empathy and compassion. We dream of an educational system powered by a love for children. If it can be, we will make the difference in the lives of every child.

We wish everyone a joyous holiday season. We will be taking a brief break from blogging over the holidays and will return January 4, 2015.

You can always connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.