A Project Avary counselor and campers gather at a summer camp before the pandemic.
Did you know that 2.7 million children currently have a parent in prison and that an estimated 10 million children have had an incarcerated parent at some point in their lives? Mass incarceration has crippled communities and ripped families apart, say organizers at San Rafael-based Project Avary.
The organization supports children as they heal from the impacts of having a parent in prison. Project Avary is one of the first nonprofit organizations in the nation dedicated to improving life outcomes among children with incarcerated parents.
Project Avary was founded in 1999 at San Quentin Prison in response to the prison chaplain, Earl Smith, watching children line up outside the gates as they waited to visit their incarcerated parents. Smith was alarmed by the intergenerational dynamics of trauma and incarceration that he was witnessing, as fathers, and then sons, would end up inside the walls of San Quentin together.
Then, Chaplain Smith met Danny Rifkin, manager of the Grateful Dead. Smith shared the plights of the children with Rifkin, and the two came together to begin Project Avary. Project Avary’s first summer camp for children with incarcerated parents began shortly after.
Children join Project Avary at the ages of 8, 9 or 10, and are offered a 10-year commitment of service, community and support. Throughout the year, youth gather with the Avary Community on outings tailored to teach and challenge, as they gain the critical social and emotional life-skills to break free from generational cycles of incarceration. These young people often spend their weekends surfing at Stinson and Bolinas beaches, kayaking the San Francisco Bay, mountain biking at China Camp State Park or hiking on trails in Marin County. This year their sleepaway summer camp took place at Clem Miller Environmental Educational Center in Point Reyes National Seashore.
Project Avary is so successful (94% of Project Avary youth and alumni have remained uninvolved with the criminal justice system), because they heal and counter the impacts of parental incarceration by incorporating four key evidence-based strategies into their programs. The nonprofit’s leaders say the “Avary Way” strategies are the most powerful things they provide youth who are facing the challenges of parental incarceration. With these tools, they empower youth by building leadership from within so they have the inner resources to overcome generational cycles of incarceration. The strategies are a community of support where youth find belonging and heal past experiences, a common bond where youth are no longer living in isolation with their experience (85% of Project Avary counseling staff are children of incarcerated parents), play and fun where kids get to be kids and escape the challenges of everyday life, and real talk where youth are given a judgment-free space to speak and be heard.
Thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Giving Marin Community Partnership and the support of generous donors in the community, Project Avary is able to continue providing essential oversight to Marin County children who have lost a parent to incarceration. To support the organization, visit projectavary.org.
Project Avary counselors and campers enjoy a pre-pandemic summer camp. All counselors pictured are former participants or alumni of Project Avary. -Photos courtesy of Project Avary