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More Than A Patch

PATCH kids
The Rev. Diane Riley
Although our society promises the magic of anti-aging elixirs, the psalmist affirms it is only in God that we can find true renewal. Not just as we get older, but at all times in our lives, God’s love and care strengthen us enough to give us wings. It is hard to imagine that children need that kind of renewal; it is usually the adults who can’t keep up. But some children have experiences that limit their abilities or weigh them down. As God’s agents, we are continually invited to explore ways we can provide children with new and different experiences that won’t keep them tethered to the ground. The Prison Ministry of the Diocese of Newark works with many affiliates to incarnate Christ’s command to extend hospitality and healing to prisoners. Parents And Their Children (PATCH), a program affiliated with Offenders Aid and Restoration of Essex County, goes one step further and focuses on the real victims: their children. PATCH facilitates parent/child visitation, arranges special field trips, and sends the children to summer camp. These activities help children keep connected to their parents while being able to explore age-appropriate experiences they would miss out on because of their parent’s absence. “At first, we naively thought it would be enough to provide these experiences for the children. But then we found that our kids were failing summer camp” says the Rev. Pam Bakal. “Their social experience was so different they could not make the jump when asked to interact with children who had vastly different experiences. They simply did not know how to behave appropriately. That’s when we knew that we needed an ongoing program that would help them develop the interpersonal skills they needed.” The goal of the “Learning by Experience” program is to encourage and fortify the self-esteem of children and help them develop a more positive interest in their future. Being with the kids regularly — the program meets every other week — is the key to success. It is the consistent attention that keeps them engaged, teaches them problem-solving, gives them exposure to interesting projects, and models the way to be together. As it turns out, the goal of successfully completing camp was way too modest. Children keep coming back. The program boasts a very low drop out rate, and the correlation between program participation and a successful transition through the teenage years is very high. The children who stay with the program typically do not get involved with gangs or drugs. Explains Bakal, “We have had some children from a young age that continue on until they age out of the program at 17. It really is a type of family. We do backpacks in September and gifts at Christmas. And I never get tired of seeing the surprised look on one of the children’s faces when they are given something that they did not expect. Undeserved Grace is transforming.” Kids Take Flight Not surprisingly, one of the best ways to show children how to express their feelings, deal with frustration, and manage anger in a healthy way is to work on a group project. Larry Ostuni, a Learning by Experience teacher and PATCH volunteer, has continually provided interesting opportunities to learn using his years of experience with the Creative Education Foundation. One of those projects was building a Hovercraft — a very unique vehicle that uses air pressure to lift off the ground. Even though it travels close to the ground, it does fly. Explains Larry, “You don’t need many parts, a plywood board, a plastic sheet, and a leaf blower. The internet has kits. We put helmets on some of the younger children and up and away they went.” The award of Alleluia funds pays for a small stipend for a Program Coordinator so that the integrity of the Learning by Experience program can be consistently maintained. Without the financial support of the Alleluia Fund, the program would reduce the number of meetings and the success of keeping the children engaged would be at risk. To learn more about Prison Ministry PATCH opportunities, contact the Rev. Pam Bakal at 973-235-1177, or download the Prison Ministry Brochure (PDF). To find out more about the NJ OAR programs, visit “Bless the Lord, O my soul… who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagles.” - Psalm 103 1a,5