Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma lost the last two years of its federal funding for a program that pairs mentors with children of incarcerated parents.
Cuts to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services have eaten away $40 million in funding nationwide for mentoring children of incarcerated parents, also called Amachi, said Sharla Owens, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma will have received about $500,000 of its three-year, $1.6 million grant when funding is cut off Saturday, Oct. 1, Owens said. The nonprofit
“This is going to be tragedy if we don't stand up and do something today,” Owens said. “We're going to lose an entire generation in Oklahoma.”
Helping children of inmates is especially important in Oklahoma, Owens said. Oklahoma has the fourth highest per capita incarceration rate in the country and the highest lockup rate for women.
About 600 children with at least one parent in prison are partnered with mentors through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma at any one time, Owens said.
The grant constituted about 20 percent of the agency's annual budget, Owens said.
When officials found out about the cuts several weeks ago, the agency bumped up its annual giving campaign from December to July.
They're hoping donors will step in and fill in the funding gap.
‘A really angry child'
Jennifer Ennis, 24, said she was heartbroken when she heard about the funding cuts.
She works for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma, but she was also a child who needed a mentor when one of her parents went to prison.
When Ennis started the fourth grade, she and her family had just moved to a new town in Kansas, leaving their father behind in a Texas prison. Her life was in upheaval.
“Things had been really crazy up to that point,” said Ennis, the Big Brothers Big Sisters match support manager for the Tulsa region. “I was a really angry child.”
School officials helped partner Ennis with a mentor through the school-based Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Her mentor was great, Ennis said. She helped Ennis with her math and encouraged her to work hard. Ennis's confidence blossomed.
But things changed when Ennis' mother had a breakdown and attempted suicide. The mother was placed in an institution, leaving Ennis and her four siblings in the care of their grandparents.
“It kind of threw me into a tailspin,” she said.
That's when Ennis' mentor stepped in. Ennis and her mentor started spending time together outside of school.
“It was always kind of nice to know I had someone stable there,” Ennis said. “It was nice to get away.”
Without the mentor's guidance during that tumultuous time, Ennis said she doesn't know whether she would have developed the self-confidence she has now. Ennis went on to become the first person in her family to graduate from high school and then college. She got a job working for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and she still stays in touch with her mentor.
She said she hopes children like her have the chance she did.
“If we're not able to provide the same services I was given when I was young, how many kids are we letting down?” Ennis said.
“It's a shock to think we may not be able to serve as many children. It's a devastation to Oklahoma.”
HOW TO HELP
Donations to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma can be mailed to 5840 S Memorial Drive, Suite 105, Tulsa, OK 74133. Donations can also be made at www.bbbsok.org. For more information, call (918) 576-6400.