Living with a painful secret
Nicole looks like an average 15-year-old. She has a pretty face and a keen fashion sense. But this small-framed beauty lives with a painful secret and constant fear that someone will discover it.
Her stepfather, the only father she has known, is in prison.
That’s not her fault, of course, but she can’t help fearing that the secret might get out and others—her schoolmates, especially—will think less of her. That’s why we’re not using her real name in this story.
Her stepfather’s absence—he’s been behind bars for eight years—has already affected her and her family greatly. Her mother could not support Nicole and her six siblings, so Nicole spent two years in foster care. She also watched her older brothers and sisters drop out of school and for a while was tempted to do the same.
Then she discovered the Chico High Academic Mentoring Program. Run by Mary Flynn, a mathematics teacher who also sits on the Chico City Council, CHAMP provides guidance to vulnerable students. Some of the funding it receives is from the five-county Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program, which targets kids like Nicole.
CHAMP, Flynn says, is designed to provide not only scholastic assistance, but also role models for these “at-risk” students. “This program is a new way of breaking the cycle of academic vulnerability,” she said.
This past school year, Flynn taught a math and English class with students who were having difficulty in the subjects. The unique aspect of the class was that it gave each student a mentor to work with a few hours a week. These mentors were Chico State University students who volunteered to spend a semester working one-on-one with the kids, although most stayed the entire school year. (CHAMP also pairs students with professionals matching their career interests.)
Not all of the students in the class had a parent in prison, but some did, and the program sought to help them specifically.
“There is a lot of social stigma attached to this issue. Kids often feel rejected by society and see little hope for their future,” said Deborah Tompkins, the program coordinator of the Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program.
The federally funded program is administered in this area by North Valley Catholic Social Service. NVCSS funds programs in Butte, Glenn, Shasta, Tehama, Siskiyou and Trinity counties. In Butte County, it funds three programs: Big Brothers Big Sisters, NVCSS Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) and CHAMP.
Mentors can play invaluable roles in troubled kids’ lives, Tompkins said: “Mentoring programs provide a link to different attitudes, behaviors and cultures that show children they have worlds of opportunity.”
Flynn agrees. In the past year she has seen a positive change in all her students, especially Nicole.
“A girl that would barely raise her hand in class became a better problem solver, more confident and fluent in numbers, a subject she once hated,” said Flynn, beaming with pride.
Nicole smiles as she talks about how her mentor, Jenn (also not her real name), related to her on a personal level and helped her tackle her academic demons. She felt comfortable talking to Jenn about her family problems and ethical dilemmas and was thrilled to watch her test scores and confidence rise.
The students have developed bonds not only with their mentors, but with each other as well. The felt safe with each other and strove to help each other succeed, Flynn said.
“We have all really bonded this past year; the whole class became like family,” Nicole said.
One problem is that there just aren’t enough mentors.
“There is a tremendous need for mentors in Butte County especially,” said Tompkins. “Currently children have to wait for a big brother or sister for up to a year after requesting one.”
Nicole smiles with delight when discussing her plans to be the first daughter in her family to graduate high school and how the program helped her realize she had the ability to go to college.
“I’ve developed an idea of who I want to be and what I’m capable of,” Nicole said. “I know I can be strong without two parents, and I can do anything, even if it takes me longer.”