Taking the time: Mentor provides parental role for child

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2009

Geraldine Saniel has a normal, happy life living in Ferriday, Natchez and Oakland, Calif.

Yet every week, Saniel deals with the pain and suffering that comes from having parents who are in prison.

Not her parents — the parents of the 7-year-old child she mentors.

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“She’s living with her great-grandmother,” Saniel said of the child. “Mom is not in the picture at all. She is incarcerated.”

The girl’s dad was in prison, too, but has been released. He does not, however, spend as much time with his daughter and her brother as he should, Saniel said.

The girl’s great-grandmother, who wished not to be named, said it has been tough raising her great-grandchildren, but things have gotten a bit easier since Saniel came into the girl’s life.

Through the Children of Prisoners program, Saniel visits the girl’s house every Thursday for an hour or two and spends at least one Saturday a month with her.

They work on homework and read during the week and do fun things on the weekends.

“We’re working with reading. She’s an avid reader,” Saniel said. “If for some reason I can’t make it, she can read to me over the phone, and on Saturdays I’ve taken her to the park, we’ve gone out to lunch or gone down by the river.”

While they work, grandmother gets to take a break.

“I can get things done that I normally have a hard time getting done with the kids running around the house,” she said. “Or, I go to the back of the house and just relax.”

Saniel said she has always enjoyed volunteering and helping others and has been doing so since her early 20s.

She learned the art of sharing from her parents — her mother used to give neighbors fruit and vegetables from her garden, and her father would do house and yard work for those in their community unable to do it themselves.

Saniel said anyone can do something to better someone else’s life.

“I just feel that everyone should be able to give something back,” she said. “You don’t always have finances, but for the most part everybody can give a little time.

“It’s only four hours a month. We sit up and watch TV an hour each evening, and that’s doing nothing.”

Saniel has been with the child she mentors for more than a year. She remembers the date because it was right after Christmas, and she said being a mentor was the best present she could get.

Although it’s up to the girl’s parents and great-grandparents how long the mentoring continues, Saniel said she hopes to be in her life as long as she can.

“If I was to have my choice, I would say yes, I’d like to continue to be close to her, through high school if possible.”

The girl’s great-grandmother said they are working to get the girl’s brother a mentor as well.

The Mentoring Children of Prisoners program is federally funded under the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Amendments (Public Law 107-133) run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Natchez program, which started in October 2006, receives grants from the federal government.

“We still need volunteers to pick up kids,” Lawrence said. “We have a fairly large number (of volunteers), but we service Jefferson, Franklin, Wilkinson and Adams counties and Concordia Parish.”

Because of the demographics, Lawrence said she may have three children waiting for mentors in Natchez, while the only available volunteers are in Wilkinson County.

According to the Family and Youth Services Bureau, approximately 2 million youth in the U.S. have at least one parent in a federal or state correctional facility.

Lawrence said in December she had five to six children who need mentors — some have been waiting more than a year.

Saniel said she got involved with Mentoring Children of Prisoners after the other mentoring program she was in changed its system.

She said in the year since she’s started mentoring the 7-year-old girl, she’s seen some big changes take place in her attitude. But she’s still looking for more progress.

“I do note that there’s some steps that still need to be taken that would benefit her even more, and we’re working on those things,” she said. “She’s had behavior problems, and those extend from home to school. When she gets upset she tends to want to tear up and tear down.”

Her great-grandmother said she has seen changes as well.

“She has been reading better, and she communicates with us better. She seems more confident, and (Saniel) works really well with her.”

Saniel said she’s been working to find new ways for the young girl to express anger, frustration and sadness other than breaking toys and crayons or acting out. Some options they’ve discussed are reading, coloring or talking to someone.

She said it is hard to know that the little girl is suffering from something she can’t control, especially when her father could be in her life.

“We wouldn’t want that for our children or any other child,” Saniel said. “It’s like a piece that’s missing. It’s hard to have a parent who can’t be there because they’re incarcerated, but it’s even harder to have a parent right there and them not do what they need to do.”

But Saniel said the mentoring has been a rewarding experience.

She said she hopes the girl, who is always ready and excited when she comes over, will be thankful in the future for what Saniel is doing now.

“I don’t care if she even remembers my name,” Saniel said. “My thing is remembering that someone is there.

“My reward is just being able to assist the child and let her know there is someone who’s willing to take the time.”