June 5, 2005
By REGINE LABOSSIERE, Courant Staff Writer
Isaiah is 10, excels at math and enjoys sports and ice cream.
But because his stepfather served
time, Isaiah is statistically more likely than other children
to end up in prison too, according to some studies.
Sitting on the sofa in his family's home in Hartford, Isaiah
remembered what his stepfather, Guy Williams, told him when he
returned home a year ago from an 18-month stint in prison.
"He said it's a bad place to be," Isaiah
Isaiah's mother, Audra Boyd-Williams, is taking advantage of
a program designed to ensure that her son will not stray down
the wrong path.
He and about 65 other children in Greater Hartford are part
of COMET, the Coalition of Mentoring Excellence Team. Under the
program, older mentors who act as role models are paired with
youngsters who have had a parent or guardian incarcerated.
Isaiah said his life before meeting his mentor was pretty boring.
He was stuck inside his apartment with his mother, three sisters
and brother, or outside playing with friends in the neighborhood.
Then Harold Wolliston came along.
Boyd-Williams said her son has become attached to Wolliston
in the year they've spent together. He is the father of two who
devotes most of his time to work, church and family.
"If he calls and Harold doesn't pick up the phone ... Houston,
we have a problem," Boyd-Williams said with a laugh. "Isaiah
Wolliston heard about COMET through his church, First Church
of the Living God, in Hartford. Boyd-Williams heard about it
through her husband, who learned about it in prison.
"[Guy] initiated it but the idea sounded really nice to
me," Boyd-Williams said. "They need to be exposed to
different things. ... Because I have five children, it's hard
for me to organize everything."
The Boyd-Williams household in Hartford's North End now has
three COMET mentors working with the family.
"They are positive role models," Boyd-Williams
Making A Connection
COMET is a partnership between the Greater Hartford Nutmeg Big
Brothers Big Sisters, Families in Crisis Inc. and the Interdenominational
The alliance of churches recruits members to become Big Brothers
or Big Sisters, while Families in Crisis goes to prisons, schools
and state agencies to find parents who would like to enroll their
children in the program. Nutmeg connects the children with the
mentors and oversees the program's daily operations.
The Child Welfare League of America, a federal resource center
for children of prisoners, says research suggests that children
of incarcerated parents may be three to six times more likely
to exhibit violent or serious delinquent behavior than other
children, said Arlene Lee, director of the Washington-based group.
The Rev. Himie-Budu Shannon, outgoing president of the Interdenominational
Ministerial Alliance, said that people and organizations working
together can have an impact on children's lives.
"We believe that, jointly, we can make a difference," Shannon
said. "United we stand, divided we fall. If the church can
partner with [nonprofit groups], we can definitely put a dent
in juvenile delinquency.
COMET costs about $300,000 a year to run. The federal Department
of Health and Human Services, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America,
the Connecticut Health Foundation and the Greater Hartford Jaycees
fund the program.
It is modeled after the Amachi
program, started in Philadelphia in 2000. Amachi is a West
African word that means "Who knows
but what God has brought us through this child." Amachi
has spread throughout the country through Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Laura Green, executive director of Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters,
wanted to create a local program based on the Amachi model because
of the 4,000 to 6,000 children in Greater Hartford who have a
parent in jail.
"We're building jails now to house the children of current
prisoners," Green said.
COMET was conceived in September 2003 and began operating in
May 2004. One year later, Nutmeg officials say they don't yet
have concrete data to determine how successful the program has
been, but that they are encouraged by anecdotal evidence.
"From the stories that we've heard, it's been very worthwhile," Green
A "Big," as the
Big Brothers and Big Sisters are known, is expected to spend
a minimum of eight to 10 hours with his or her assigned child
"They have fun. We encourage them to do what they would
normally do," said Damian Humphrey, program director for
Humphrey said the Bigs take their charges to museums, roller
rinks, movies and parties, or simply bring them home to spend
a day with the Big's families. Humphrey said children of incarcerated
parents need special attention because of the stigma surrounding
"As a child, you always see your parent as good, but you
have a good parent who's in jail. You are torn between society
telling you your parent is bad [and] your feeling your parent
is good," Green said. Some of the children in the program
have already gotten into trouble with the police, she said.
"These children are more at risk than the children we would
normally serve," Green said. "Not only are they low-income,
unstable families, but they have more emotional baggage."
Isaiah is one of the luckier children in the program, said Brian
Kelly, a spokesman for the Nutmeg program. Isaiah lives with
his mother and stepfather, and his biological father participates
in his life.
"The majority of the boys have maternal support to varying
degrees - mothers, aunts, grandmothers - and very little male
support. The same holds true with girls in the COMET program," Kelly
A Slow Process
Wolliston, who has two young daughters and lives in Windsor,
said getting to know Isaiah was a slow process.
"I think he was a little apprehensive at first. He wasn't
very conversational. We began to go out more and more often and
he opened up," Wolliston said. "We're buddies right
Wolliston and Isaiah talk about sports, including Isaiah's
favorite team, the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars.
"It's fun, and when we go out we go to different places
that I've never been," Isaiah said.
Wolliston, who is a store manager at the Goodyear Tire and Auto
Center in West Hartford, also is learning from the experience.
"I've got two girls,
so here I have the responsibility of having almost like a son
now. Sometimes I try to refer back to that many many moons
ago, as far as, `What did I do at his age?' But it's like I'm
also learning myself all over again."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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