On Park Avenue, Son & Mother’s Talk on Prison

New York, N.Y. I recently had the opportunity to attend The Osborne Association’s 2012 Annual Lighting the Way Breakfast where I heard an array of speakers, both polished and grassroots, speak on the need for prison reform here in New York and across these United States. “Osborne,” as it is known by insiders, is an 80-year-old nonprofit that has pioneered programs that empower individuals with current or previous involvement in the criminal justice system to lead positive, healthy and productive lives, and to deepen connections to their families and communities.

In short, I learned that The Osborne Association is a champion for second chances, supporting men and women who have beat the odds and triumphed following their release from prison. Some 700 prominent New Yorkers attended the breakfast and heard an incredible narrative from the son of a woman who had been incarcerated – and then from the woman herself. It was one of the most electric, dynamic moments I have ever witnessed in New York City.

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Miss America 2012 Laura Kaeppeler, whose father went to prison when she was a teenager, shared her
experience with the audience. Picture with Donovan Clarke Photo: Osborne Association.

The mother-son speakers who related their gripping first-person family narrative to us at the breakfast were Ayana Thomas who was sentenced to a federal prison for 36 months for bank fraud and money laundering and her son, recent high school graduate Donovan Clarke. Donovan spoke first:

Hello my name is Donovan Clarke and I am a youth participant at the Osborne Association. I was 14 when my mother was arrested. I remember that day very well. I was called down to the school office to be picked up early. A family friend told me my mom had been arrested and was in jail. I was confused and hurt and didn’t know why any of this was happening. I started to worry about what would happen to me and my sister and I knew it would all be different. My mother is the rock of this family. What would we do without her?

Life got harder right away. We left our beautiful home in Virginia and moved in with an uncle and aunt close by. My mom was convicted and sent to prison 517 miles from us in Danbury, Connecticut. After a year of being too far away to see her when I wanted, we moved to my father’s apartment in Brooklyn. I thought that would get me closer to my mom, but I was still two hours away.

Getting to Danbury was hard. I hated how much trouble it was to see my mother instead of being able to go in the next room to talk, like in the old days. Getting through visiting clearance was the worst. It was a long and frustrating process when all we wanted was to get in to see our mom. There was a strict dress code and it felt like there were so many unnecessary rules that children had to follow.

I missed my mom and wished we could talk about the changes I was going through. My baby sister was growing up and I felt more like her father than brother. I was trying to help her get life without her mom, even as people were asking too many questions and making sly remarks about us.

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Ana Oliveira of The New York Women’s Foundation MC’d the event. Photo: Stewardship Report.

My mom’s visits were always special. We spoke about life, school, and the future. She cared less about gossip and only about the steps it would take to get me to graduate school and into college. She encouraged me to stay focused and surround myself with only positive people. She knew my every step even though she was far away. For most teens that would be overwhelming, but I loved—and needed—her attention.

My mom found Osborne through a friend and pushed me to get involved, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Once I did come, I felt comfortable pretty quickly. I didn’t feel ashamed because we all had one thing in common: an incarcerated parent. We met once a month for fun activities and always had a blast. I’ve been to the movies, Coney Island, picnics, and bowling. It was cool because I met teens that I could just relax and have fun with and who will be in my life forever.

I have been a part of some great life-changing programs at Osborne. Through the Youth Advisory Board I learned to stand up and advocate for myself. In Teen College Dreams they guide and motivate us to get into college and prepare us to succeed. Osborne also connected me to a wonderful internship at the store, A Time for Children.

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Donovan Clarke with his mother Ayana Thomas who was sentenced to a federal prison.
Photo: Stewardship Report.

Osborne taught me that young people do have a voice and can make a difference. I’ve learned to be comfortable talking about my mother’s incarceration and am honored to talk about children who have an incarcerated parent. I am grateful for our memorable trip to Albany where we met Senators and assembly men and women. I told them how important it is to me for people like my mom to have a second chance. I told them I needed my mom to have hope that she would be able to find a job and support us when she came home.

When my mom was released last May, I was excited but still disappointed. She was sent to a half-way house in the Bronx. Just when I thought she was all mine again, we were faced with another set of strict rules and limited visiting days. It felt like more of the same. Finally, last August, she really came home and it was like I had won the presidential election. We spent six months together at a family shelter while my mom looked for work and a searched for a home. And after 3 years of being separated and struggling just to see each other, we are finally really together in a brand new three bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Yes, I said it: Three bedrooms.

I was a 14 year old boy when my mom was arrested and taken away from me. Today, I am 17 years old. In two weeks, I’ll graduate from high school and will attend NYC Technical College in the fall. Osborne gave me the opportunity to advocate for myself through the Youth Advisory Board and prepare for college through Teen College Dreams. My family is rebuilding with the help of the Osborne Association. Now I have a full-time mom, with a great job and my queen in my presence every day.

Much to my amazement, Donovan’s mother was then introduced and took the podium. Looking particularly sharp and confident, she addressed the affluent crowd:

In January 2009, I was convicted of bank fraud and money laundering and sentenced to 36 months in federal prison. I was transported from my home in Virginia to the federal prison camp in Connecticut where I served 26 months of my sentence before being released to a halfway house in the Bronx.

Before my arrest, I ran my own day care in Richmond, Virginia. My husband and I owned a home and we were raising our three children and my little sister. From the outside, life seemed pretty great.

But appearances can hide a lot. Emotionally, I was a mess. I was married to a drug dealer and in a marriage I no longer wanted to be in. I was using material things to keep me happy and holding on to an illusion of what my life should be. And it was quite an illusion: I committed bank fraud to help my husband buy the drugs he was selling; I was the classic hustler’s wife who reaped the material benefits and quietly condoned the crimes that made them possible.

It has been just over three years since my conviction. When I was released from the halfway house in the Bronx, I could be with my kids again, but we had to live in various shelters in East New York. Finally, in March 2012, my children and I moved into our own apartment in Brooklyn.

But this isn’t just a story about a woman who goes to prison, learns a lesson, and comes home. This story, my story, is about a family. In prison, 500 miles away, I yearned to see my children but also secretly hated visits. Having my children see me in my ugly green uniform, under the scrutiny of an officer dictating how close we could sit, how often we could touch and what time they had to leave was devastating. I pretended like my heart wasn’t in pieces. I had to be strong for my children, so they didn’t see me sad and leave with that thought of me in their heads.

Once, during one of our rare visits, I nearly lost my game face when my seven year old daughter, Kayla, cried and pleaded to stay. She didn’t understand that mommy had to stay here, alone, and she had to leave. My sister had to pull her from me—crying—when it was time to go. It left me emotionally and mentally drained and feeling guilty for the hurt I knew I had caused.

But though I celebrated coming home, I was scared of the uncertainty. Living in the halfway house, I struggled to put a life back together that would allow me to reunite with my children. Finding Osborne gave me hope that there would be a better, happier future.

I learned about Osborne from my childhood friend Diana Archer, who is a case manager in the Family Ties Program. As you heard, Diana first worked with my son, Donovan, and helped him navigate the scary and painful side of having a mother in prison.

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Mother and son helped by The Osborne Association. Photo: Stewardship Report.

When I came home, Donovan and Diana told me about the Workforce Intensive Program, which helped prepare me to search for a job after prison. We worked to become comfortable in a job interview and to answer the inevitable questions about my previous incarceration. But more than that, Osborne staff helped me learn to understand and believe in myself.

Osborne staff feel like family. Diana, Ronald, Ben and Andre are always willing to help or hear me out. With the help of Osborne’s Workforce Intensive program, I was hired at Food First, a non-profit housing provider for HIV positive individuals. I am the Administrative Assistant / Management Information Systems specialist and I love the work that we do.

Osborne didn’t just train me and find me a job. They gave me a new start and the confidence to dream. I am applying to start college in September. In less than three weeks, I’ll be the mother of a high school graduate AND an elementary school graduate! Donovan and I will both be in college this fall where I will pursue my dream of becoming a Funeral Director.

I have this to share… Somehow I needed to be incarcerated in a physical prison to learn that I was trapped in the mental prison of my dysfunctional life. Prison is not an experience I would wish on anyone, but it probably saved me from a much worse future. Coming through prison and into a program like Osborne freed me. Without it, I’d never have been here to tell my story.

So now I live by my own good choices, surrounded by positive friends and family, my good heart and my God. I will be the best me daily not because of speeches like this. Not because of degrees or what people see. I now possess something greater that makes me the best me. I live in faith, happiness, resilience and optimism. These alone will get me through my obstacles and I thank you for helping restore my belief in myself and allowing me to tell my story.

Special Guests of this Manhattan power breakfast included Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project which I have read about for years in The New York Times, Miss America 2012 Laura Kaeppeler, and Ana Oliveira of The New York Women’s Foundation, with special remarks from the Osborne Association’s executive director Elizabeth Gaynes. This breakfast was the best I have attended in 2012. Sign up for their mailing list now so you can be invited to their 2013 breakfast. I assure you it will be one of the best events you will attend in 2013.

The Osborne Association | Contribute
Transforming lives, communities, & the criminal justice system

OsborneNY.org | sign up for e-updates | facebook | twitter@OsborneNY

Persons Served Annually 6,500:
88% of clients are African American and Latino.
90% of clients arrive unemployed.
60% of Employment and Training clients are placed in jobs.
Osborne helps more than 2,000 families each year.

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About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

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Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org), he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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