By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Jonathan Shikes
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By William Breathes
By Melanie Asmar
For some reason, Michael has taken his shoes off. He rubs his toes against the cold linoleum floor and giggles.
"Are you going to mellow out, or are you going to be crazy like this all day?"
"Crazy," the six-year-old answers, turning up the end of the word like he's asking his own question.
Erich Meyerhoffer, a 32-year-old social worker with Denver Area Youth Services, is unfazed. "No," he says calmly. "Let's mellow out." He leans against the principal's desk and uncrosses his arms. "This is the first time you're going to meet them. You want to make a good impression, right? Remember how nice you were when you first met Scarla, your old mentor? You went up and shook her hand..."
"Can I be crazy?"
"You can be crazy later."
"Now," Michael repeats, his voice tinny and robotic. "Now...now...now..."
Meyerhoffer turns to Juliana, Michael's six-year-old cousin, who's sitting nearby. "Let's take you out to meet them," he says. "Because you're not being crazy. And we'll leave Mike here to be crazy." Meyerhoffer knows that when Michael gets nervous, he tends to get even more hyperactive than he usually is; the attention-hungry boy "could have fun in a paper bag," Meyerhoffer says. Juliana, on the other hand, becomes quiet and withdrawn when confronted with new situations. Today her responses register barely above a whisper.
Meyerhoffer knows these youngsters well. It's January 2005, and he's been working for thirteen months directing a small program that matches volunteer mentors with children of incarcerated parents. (The children's names have been changed for this story.) Michael was originally paired with a female social worker. Their outings were fun and productive, but she realized that the boy could use a male mentor. At the same time, Juliana began to ask for a mentor of her own. It took a while, but Meyerhoffer finally found a couple that he thinks will be a good fit.
"He got a worse life," Michael says out of nowhere.
"He's what?" asks Meyerhoffer, a bit confused. The boy is difficult to understand sometimes. He didn't speak until he was three years old, and he's still struggling to develop a working vocabulary, often slurring consonants and mixing parts of speech. Meyerhoffer hypothesizes that Michael's "distorted speech patterns" may reflect some learning disabilities and the fact that he's being raised by his elderly maternal grandparents, who primarily speak Spanish in their home.
"My new mentor. When he was little boy like my age, he got a worse life."
"He had a pretty bad life," Meyerhoffer nods. "Who told you that?"
"Mm-mmm," Michael shakes his head and looks at Juliana. It was her mother who said that their new mentor had a rough adolescence. "Nobody," he answers.
"That's okay," Meyerhoffer assures the cousins. "Yeah, he did have a hard time. And you know what you guys should do? You can ask him questions. You can ask them both what they like to do and where they're from." Peering into the school lobby, Meyerhoffer sees that the new mentors are there. He stands and once again asks Michael if he's going to behave.
The kindergartener laughs and pokes his tongue out the side of his mouth, which is filled with silver-capped teeth. "Crazy!"
"Okay, you can stay in here then," Meyerhoffer says.
"Crazy," Michael shouts one last time, his eyes following Meyerhoffer and Juliana as they leave the room. Finally, when he sees that they're not turning around, he surrenders.
While Anne parks the car, Marc flops his thick wave of dark-brown hair to the side and looks up at Annunciation. The two-story school, which is run by the Catholic Archdiocese, occupies an unassuming building constructed of faded tan-colored bricks, with 6/6 windows chomping on dormant air conditioners. A concrete handicap ramp leads to the front doors, where a sign announces that the academy offers grades kindergarten through eighth. Below it, a smaller sign taped to the window asks visitors to ring the doorbell or "Toca el timbre, por favor."
For the past two months, Marc has trained for this day. But still, it seems so quick, so sudden, being thrust into the role of a mentor. In one instant you take on the responsibility, and uncertainty, of helping some kid with whom you have no previous connection -- and never would, if not for this program.
At 29, Marc Plaskie is three years younger than his wife, Anne. They both have round bodies with thick legs and easy smiles. They married not long after moving to Denver about seven months before, in June 2004, and this is the first time they've set foot on this quiet block along the border of the Cole and Five Points neighborhoods. Even so, the area seems familiar to Marc, who grew up in Chicago and knows the physical and mental geography of inner-city life intimately.
A hundred yards away is the school's namesake, Annunciation Catholic Church. It towers above the rooftops of the modest homes that sag at the margin between minimum upkeep and full-on dilapidation. The church, first founded more than a hundred years ago by Irish, German and Italian immigrants, continues to serve the city's current influx of immigrants, hosting Sunday mass and confession in both English and Spanish. The school's enrollment is 100 percent students of color, mostly Hispanic kids.
Marc and Anne enter through the small front foyer and head down the locker-lined hallway, where they're greeted by Sister Jean Panisko, Annunciation's principal since 1980. Although she isn't wearing a black-and-white habit, Sister Jean looks the part of a devout nun. She stands maybe five feet, three inches tall, but she's a giant to the students, her presence at once commanding and calming.
Sister Jean was thrilled when she was asked to sit on the advisory board for Meyerhoffer's mentoring program. Over the decades, she's seen firsthand the dramatic change that a positive role model can have on a child, recognized the powerful counterbalance of a consistent adult figure against the vicious forces of poverty, drug use, crime and domestic chaos. She knows this in a way that only elementary-school teachers can: from the lost, perplexed look in the eyes of children talking about the fathers or mothers they rarely speak to, or barely remember, or never met at all. Eyes that become distant, eventually even vacant. Entire classrooms filled with silent, vulnerable eyes.
In most cases, even imperfect or infrequent parental contact is better than none at all, especially for kids whose moms or dads are in jail. So Sister Jean takes it upon herself to sustain that connection when she can.
Michael was three years old when his 26-year-old mother disappeared one night after leaving a north Denver bar. Three years later, in October 2004, her Chevrolet Suburban was discovered at the bottom of a Thornton reservoir. That November, the young boy and his older sister and brother got the news that the body inside the car had been positively identified through DNA as that of their mother; police ruled the death accidental.
Michael's father wasn't around for the revelation. He's on his second year of a seven-year prison sentence at the Limon Correctional Facility for first-degree assault with a deadly weapon (he also served time in the early '90s for a felony drug conviction). Michael speaks with his father at least once a month over the phone, usually from right there in Sister Jean's office. Juliana's father has been in and out of jail for the past decade, too, usually on drug or weapons charges.
Marc and Anne have been told all of this. They're waiting with the nun by the wooden benches at the foot of the trophy case when Meyerhoffer and the two children emerge. After introductions, at Meyerhoffer's suggestion, everyone moves back into the principal's office.
Anne bends down low. "Do you like to go by Juliana or Julie?" she asks.
The girl shrugs.
"Sometimes people call me Ann and sometimes people call me Ann-ee," Anne says. "I don't really care which one." With her long, curly brown hair and warm demeanor, she bears a slight resemblance to a life-sized Cabbage Patch doll. Juliana tucks her chin into her shoulder and lets a small smile creep onto her face.
Marc and Anne talk with the kids about what they'd like to do for fun. There's Chuck E. Cheese's, or maybe a basketball or soccer game? Overwhelmed by the possibilities, Michael concentrates on dragging chairs from the hallway into the office. Meyerhoffer asks him to knock it off -- twice. "Mike!" he says.
Normally, Marc is talkative. A chat with him can suddenly shift from easygoing to intense, as he leaps into a high-minded monologue on politics, history, psychology. But now he shifts uncomfortably in his chair by the door, straining to come up with something to say. His oversized black sweater hangs loosely on his frame, almost cloaking his belly; he pushes the sleeves up, revealing faded, home-done tattoos. The largest is a black-toothed band that wraps around his left forearm and connects to a strange, bird-shaped blot spreading below his elbow. On his right arm are big rose-colored blobs of scar tissue. For a moment, Michael halts his fidgeting and eyes the prison tattoos and razor-blade scars. Marc asks if he ever watches Mexican soccer. Michael nods enthusiastically.
"Do you ever watch," Marc thinks for a second, "Cruz Azul de Latina?"
"Yeah," the boy answers right away. "That my favorite team. And my grandpa's."
Mentoring match-ups in a highly structured program such as this can fail for a variety of reasons. Families move, kids drop out, schedules conflict, mentors become too busy. One hour per week is the minimum commitment, but volunteers can spend as much time as they want with their mentees. Meyerhoffer hopes that each pairing will last at least a year; the most effective scenario is for a mentor relationship to continue for three years. In the best cases, the mentor will maintain contact until the child reaches high school and beyond.
Marc thinks back to when he was Michael's age. Before the gangs and crime, before the needles, cheap vodka and regular stays at the Cook County Jail. Before hopelessness and lack of direction consumed his life. If someone had just come to his school, pulled him out of his kindergarten class and started taking him to soccer games on weekends, who knows? Maybe things would have been different.
"In my whole life, there was never anyone there to give me directives, and even if they were giving me directives, it was negative," Marc says. "When I was between the ages of seven and ten, there was probably a really short window period for someone to grab me before I was gone."
By now, Marc has gone and come back again. Maybe if he's able to step into the life of another kid, someone like Michael or Juliana, everything from here on out might be a little different for everyone. Is it possible to change the past by changing someone else's future?
Located in a fatigued industrial park off Interstate 25, Denver Area Youth Services serves as home base for a coalition of non-profit organizations targeted toward "at-risk youth," including programs for foster kids, a child-placement agency, gang-intervention groups and a project that treats expectant mothers who have HIV or have used drugs since becoming pregnant.
For social services in Colorado -- not to mention across the country -- the last four years have been all doom and gloom. The economic downturn and subsequent city, state and federal budget cuts slashed money for programs. Meanwhile, the demand for support services grew, compounding the strain on cash-strapped agencies, some of which have been reduced to bare-bones staff or have closed up shop altogether.
Even so, DAYS was able to start a mentoring project with a federal grant picked up under the national Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program. The three-year initiative is part of President George Bush's No Child Left Behind Act; in his 2003 State of the Union address, he committed to funneling $450 million into youth mentoring, with $150 million of that focusing on children of prisoners. Hundreds of community organizations and faith-based groups have been awarded grants ranging from $60,000 annually for an agency in Hugo, Oklahoma, to $2 million a year for the Children's Home Society in West Palm Beach, Florida. Meyerhoffer's operation, which is called Mentoring Valuable People, was allocated a total of $300,000, with a mandate to set up 140 kids with mentors over three years.
A year into the project, Meyerhoffer has met his first installation requirement of thirty matches. But as the program's only full-time employee, his caseload is extremely heavy and the budget tight. There's no money for recruitment or any more advertising than printing posters. He was able to score a $7,500 donation from Qwest early on to set up an events calendar that includes a ski trip and horseback riding, but all other activities have to be covered by the mentors themselves.
Meyerhoffer has spiky hair and sideburns, and his face usually wears varying lengths of stubble. His office is small, dark and drafty but well organized. Dry-erase boards bear the names of prospective children and their ages (most are between eight and eleven), as well as the names of adult volunteers currently undergoing the sixteen hours of initial mentor training conducted by Nicholson & Associates, a consulting group for the child-protection field. Posters of ski resorts hang on the cinderblock walls, reminders of his days as a competitive downhill racer.
Meyerhoffer's childhood in Denver was far removed from the problems his clients struggle with. "I was spoiled," he admits. But he can relate to juvenile delinquency. "I was a total troublemaker. I did drugs, even stole cars. If there had been [placement homes] around when I was a kid," he laughs, "my parents would've sent me there in a second." Skiing eventually helped him channel his energy, and he moved to Aspen after high school. When his career on the slopes didn't pan out, he began taking various jobs working with troubled teens and eventually earned a business degree with a minor in psychology from the University of Colorado.
While he sometimes wonders why he didn't go into a more lucrative and less demanding line of work -- especially after having to declare bankruptcy a couple of years back and now often putting in sixty-hour weeks -- he jokingly chalks up his choice of occupation to penance for his own misspent youth. And he can't blame that on a lack of parents.
While parent/child separation due to death or divorce has long been an active field of study, in the past few years experts have started examining the impact of parental incarceration on young children. The sudden interest among social scientists and policy planners is a direct result of the United States' exploding prison population over the past twenty years. "Between 1991 and 1999, the number of children with a parent in a Federal or state correctional facility increased by more than 100 percent, from approximately 900,000 to approximately 2,000,000," the Department of Health and Human Services reports.
Over half (58 percent) of these minors are under ten years of age, according to a study by the Urban Institute, which determined that having a parent in prison can have profound consequences for a child. Immediate effects can include feelings of shame, social stigma, loss of financial support, poor school performance, increased delinquency and increased risk of abuse or neglect. In the long term, children may experience increased dependency or may regress developmentally, with "impaired ability to cope with future stress or trauma," the study reports. Instances of depression, substance abuse and academic and social withdrawal are much higher in this demographic. Children of incarcerated parents are 65 percent more likely to follow a pattern of crime and violence, Meyerhoffer says, and "seven times more likely to become involved in the juvenile and adult criminal-justice system."
In the metro area, Meyerhoffer estimates that there are 12,000 minors who have a mother or father in jail. But because his program is so small, he only accepts kids through direct referrals from certain schools or social-service agencies. And even then, he carefully assesses each child before admitting him into the program.
"Not all of the kids qualify," he says. "There are some kids who have become so part of the system that when I interview them, their investment is slim to none. And at this point, I have enough experience in this field to know when the kid wants to do it and when the kid doesn't." But getting kids is the easy part. "There's never any shortage of children who need help," he continues. "When you don't have the resources, all you do is just turn the faucet a tiny bit so that only a few dribble out. Because if you turned the faucet all the way, you'd get flooded."
The hard part is finding a good, diverse range of mentors.
Of the thirty kids now in the program, twenty are boys and ten are girls; of the mentors, seven are men and 23 are women. And while the clear majority of children needing mentors in urban areas are ethnic minorities from the working class -- "Forty percent of the families we work with are at or below the poverty line," Meyerhoffer says -- almost all of his volunteers are middle- to upper-class and white.
In 2003, the Urban Institute found that 93 percent of incarcerated parents were men. Fatherless households and a lack of positive male role models have long been identified as major problems in many urban communities, and a contributing element in youth crime and violence. At a recent Denver conference on the educational challenges facing African-American adolescent males, the shortfall in adult male guidance was a recurring theme. A representative of Big Brothers Big Sisters even stood and made an impassioned plea for more men to get involved with their effort to provide mentors to children of prisoners. "We have a hundred kids on the waiting list," she said.
While Meyerhoffer says there's nothing wrong with pairing a seven-year-old black boy with a white woman, he admits that the shortage of adult males can be troubling, especially since his program dictates same-gender mentor matches for children ten years and older. "Part of the frustration is that there are so many boys being referred to this program, and I just don't have enough men to be able to do that," he laments. "A lot of it is from mothers who have sons and whose husbands are in prison. I have six boys on hold for this program right now who desperately need it, and I can't do it."
He's had some success recruiting at the sociology departments of local colleges. Meyerhoffer finds that students, who can get class credit for volunteering, make good mentors because they tend to have more flexible schedules and "they're a lot more socially conscious and understanding of diversity and hardship." He's also gotten mentors through presentations to community organizations, or by sheer dumb luck.
One day Meyerhoffer got a call from a man named Marc Plaskie. He was well-spoken, likable and really wanted to get involved.
But first, he said, there was something Meyerhoffer needed to know.
All psychiatric hospitals seem to look the same. There's always the puke-green walls, the light-gray linoleum, the tired mauve furniture. It's as though any color not emitting the benign hues of recovery might cause patients to dive out the windows in a screaming panic. But psych wards always made Anne feel safe. It was as if the standard horseshoe-shaped enclosure -- with the uniform rooms and uniform windows and anchoring nurse's station -- was two big arms wrapping around her. While other Chicago Reid Medical Center patients secluded themselves or vegetated or became morose, Anne became social. Giddy, even.
Growing up in Colorado Springs, Anne had always struggled with depression. In high school she was quiet and sensitive. She loved books and writing, and she felt words deeply; she was accepted into UCLA and majored in English. She was generally perky and good-natured, but every so often she'd become struck by an overwhelming sadness. Anne struggled. She went to a doctor who diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. (This was an incomplete diagnosis, she found out later. Her bouts of depression -- so intense that she often ended up in the hospital -- coincided with her period. It was eventually determined that she suffered from premenstrual dysphoric disorder.)
Anne started going to therapy, and her depression became manageable. She got a job as a nanny with a family in Virginia. She has always loved working with kids. It's such a pure thing, watching them figure out the world. "And with my mental illness, struggling to find that happiness, when you're around kids, it's so simple," she says. "You just feel very important and very loved. For someone who's kind of lonely and depressed, it feels good to have that unconditional love and not have somebody doing all the grown-up judging."
Plus, she's good with kids, confident and assertive. With kids, she knows exactly what to do and what to say to make them feel better. It was something she learned from her mother, who was a kindergarten teacher -- when to be stern, when to be loving, how to set boundaries. "I've always felt that if you give people the things they need, they can blossom," she says. Anne liked working with the Virginia family but disagreed with the father's parenting style. The contention grew until she quit and moved to Chicago to live with a friend. Unable to find a job in the freezing Midwest winter, she became severely depressed.
Anne had been at the hospital for two weeks when Marc arrived in April 2003. His body was wracked by drugs and alcohol, and he didn't come out of his room for the first two days. After he emerged, Anne saw him in the day room, by the pay phones, leaning in his chair against the wall like all tough guys do, holding a deck of cards. Wanting to be friendly, she walked up and introduced herself. He was playing Spades. She asked why.
"I'm just seeing how the hands come out," he replied.
They talked a lot over the following weeks while playing dominos or Uno. She asked questions about his past, and he answered in detail.
"It was like a television show or movie come to life," Anne remembers. He showed her the bullet wound still healing on his left calf. He described the depressed, unincorporated area northwest of Chicago where he'd grown up. He talked about how he became a drug-delivery boy at the age of ten and how he was regularly using those hard drugs by the time he was twelve. Marc routinely ditched junior high and graduated into the ranks of one of Chicago's most notorious biker gangs. They ran drugs, guns, scams and robberies across the city and beyond. At sixteen he had a brand-new Lincoln Town Car that he couldn't drive because he didn't have a license. He was in and out of juvenile detention, had overdosed more times than he could count -- but he also had more money than he could hide and what he thought was respect. He was smart and big and never hesitated to beat the shit out of anyone, so the honchos made his job "head of collections." When federal prosecutors finally picked the whole pyramid apart and police scooped up all of the gang members in a series of dramatic raids, Marc was spared severe prison time, mostly because he was still underage (a few months from eighteen) and because prosecutors were more interested in frying the higher-ups.
One day, Anne asked Marc if he had ever had to "hurt anyone." It was the only question he didn't answer.
Still, she was amazed by his openness. The group-therapy sessions were voluntary, and unlike the other men, Marc always sat in. Not only that, but he talked. A lot. He asked questions. He struggled to understand the mother who'd belittled and hit him, the father who'd ignored him and was always gone, the physical and sexual abuse by family members. The anger -- he held it and squeezed it until his nails dug into his skin. He hated the anger. He hated himself.
There is a year in his early twenties that Marc can't even remember, lost forever in a haze of heroin and drink. During this period, when police showed up at his mother's house on a domestic-dispute call, they encountered Marc, obliterated and out of control. With all of his parole violations, he was finally thrown in prison. There the revelations came slowly. While at one detainment facility that receives new prisoners, he saw guys from the neighborhood coming in who had been released on parole just a few days before. It was like they knew no other way of life beyond the revolving door of prison and crime.
Two years later, Marc was released. At age 25, he vowed never to go back. He got off the hard drugs, slowly stopped hanging out with other felons and started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Then his mother died.
"So I stocked up on three bottles of Valium and three bottles of Vicodin and just popped as many pills as I could at the funeral," he remembers. "And I made it about six months after that, just white-knuckling it but emotionally spiraling out of control and knowing that no amount of marijuana, no amount of Vicodin, is making me feel better." He hit bottom again, resumed old criminal habits and nearly drank himself to death.
Anne watched Marc weep openly in more than one group-therapy session. She knew that this was someone who desperately wanted to change his life and had the potential to do it. All he needed was someone who'd support and nurture him. One night, just before lights out, Marc and Anne talked quietly in the eating area, the one part of the facility that afforded anything resembling privacy. He shuffled and rambled. She could tell that he wanted to kiss her. He looked at the ceiling.
"And he didn't!" Anne recalls. "I'm used to making bad choices and being with guys who take advantage, so I'd never really had that happen before." The next day, in the sunroom, he did kiss her. And when Anne was discharged from the hospital, they made plans for Marc to move to Colorado Springs someday. "I was like, 'Okay, whatever. See you when you get there,'" Anne recalls.
One month later, Marc showed up on her doorstep. They married that fall and moved to an apartment in Denver. Anne found a job as a nanny for a family in the Congress Park neighborhood. Marc stayed sober and held a job as a landscaper, his only skill outside of crime. But he was sick of it. For the first time in his life, he thought about college and a career. But with a resumé that was more likely to make people call the police than call for an interview, that seemed impossible.
Jen, the mother of the young kids Anne worked with, sees Marc a lot. "And it was a little bit scary at first, knowing his background," she says. "But we got to know Marc as a very compassionate person and as someone who was both rough and tough on the exterior, but also very teddy-bearish around our kids." Jen suggested that Marc try working with troubled teens because "he knows how tough the world is and how it can be to face those challenges that kids experience."
But this was much easier said than done. Marc began calling different organizations, but no one wanted to assume the liability of allowing an ex-con into their program. The only person who didn't see it as an immediate deal-breaker was Meyerhoffer.
He met Marc in a restaurant, and remembers that he was "totally nervous and very serious. He had letters of reference from everybody he'd ever met before." They talked about Marc's options. Would he realistically be able to get a paid job in the social-work field? Probably not. Technically, Marc was still a recovering addict; what if he relapsed? Even becoming a volunteer mentor was problematic. If something went wrong, it could potentially sink the whole program.
Meyerhoffer discussed it with his boardmembers. They reviewed the records of Marc's crimes back in Illinois. They put him through their interview screening process meant to weed out deadbeats and pedophiles.
In the end, Meyerhoffer went with his gut.
"Part of the core of these programs is giving people the opportunity to change their past," he says. "We're trying to change the kid's past. Why can't we allow adults to change their past?"
Chuck E. Cheese's, that strip-mall mecca of animatronics theater and greasy pizza beloved by kids and scorned by parents, is the natural destination for Anne and Marc's first excursion with Juliana and Michael. Marc and Anne feed tokens into Skee-Ball and video games and watch the kids dart between the machines, investigating every bing and flash.
Michael wants Marc to help him with the basketball game. He wants Marc to watch him jump in the ball pit. He tugs Marc's hand toward the prize counter. Marc loses sight of Michael. Peering into the indoor playground, he tries to distinguish the boy from the other kids clambering through the sky tubes. Hearing a knocking, Marc looks up to see Michael waving from behind the domed Plexiglas. "Marc!" the boy yells. "Look!"
Family members say that Michael harbors a great deal of anger over his mother's death -- although Marc and Anne don't see this during their time with him. Michael may be hyperactive and hard to manage at times, but he doesn't defy authority figures or act aggressively toward other children. When confronted by a bully, he's more likely to acquiesce than react violently. His misbehavior seems rooted in a strong desire to connect with adults and gain their approval.
Like most kids in the mentoring program, Michael has grown familiar with the topography of loss, with both parents vanishing from view as if mysteriously swallowed up by the earth. In late 2004, just before he was paired with his mentor, Michael was featured in several newspaper articles about the discovery of his mother's body. One photograph in the Rocky Mountain News featured the boy staring at a picture of his mother. He occasionally speaks of her, although he was very young when she went missing, and his memories of her are vague and few. He rarely talks about his father.
In the program's training sessions, mentoring volunteers are instructed in techniques to develop bonds with their mentees while still maintaining boundaries. Meyerhoffer calls it a quick primer in "Social Work 101." Mentors are there to listen and offer encouragement, not to be therapists or surrogate parents. Some children will seek to "sabotage" new relationships, employing pint-sized defense mechanisms against the painful cycle of loving and losing guardians. Trust can be a hard-won commodity, and the price is consistency and reliability. But Meyerhoffer is also amazed by how willing some kids are to connect with new mentors. "They just want so bad to have some sort of itty-bitty normal piece in their life," he says. "The minority of the kids in this program are kids who have sabotaged for one reason or another. But the majority still have the love and the trust and the understanding of what adults truly mean to them."
As is often the case with children their age, it takes little time for Juliana and Michael to warm up to their mentors. "Statistically, that's why mentoring programs are so much more successful when you're dealing with younger kids," Meyerhoffer says. "Developmentally, they're almost like a sponge; they're soaking everything in. They're developing empathy, they're developing understandings of feeling and trust. It really does teach them a way of acting and understanding people."
In the weeks after the trip to Chuck E. Cheese's, Anne and Marc plan activities that will be a little easier on their wallets. The kids don't mind. They buy Michael a basketball, and he and Marc shoot hoops in the park while Anne and Juliana watch from a nearby swing set. Juliana tells Anne about "Spider," a game she'd play sitting on her mother's lap, swinging back and forth like a swooping arachnid. "I really miss the old days when I got to play with my mom," Juliana says. The "old days" were back before her father went to jail and her mother started working two jobs. Juliana was four when her father, Alex, landed in jail for cutting false checks and a federal weapons charge. At first he was housed at the Federal Correctional Institution in Littleton, but he's since been moved to Florence. Juliana's sad comment is very articulate for a six-year-old, and Anne realizes just how intelligent the girl is.
With her years of nannying experience, Anne is no stranger to early childhood education. Whenever Marc describes his family's dysfunctional home life, she has a habit of interjecting pop-psychology explanations into his story, as if retying loose threads of a quilt she's attempting to repair. Since she has little patience with bad parenting -- the reason she left her nannying job in Virginia -- Anne's biggest concern with becoming a mentor is that she'll feel compelled "to rush in and fix every little thing" in the child's life.
At Meyerhoffer's suggestion, Anne visits Juliana's home and meets with her mother, Angelina. Their apartment is tidy and clean, and Anne can tell that the 28-year-old mother works hard to raise Juliana and her twelve-year-old brother. Since Alex went to jail, Angelina has had another child with her current boyfriend and is pregnant with her fourth. "She clearly cares a lot for her kids and is doing the best that she can as a single mother," Anne says. So if Anne's only role as a mentor is playing and talking on swing sets, that's fine.
Through the spring, the couple and the cousins visit those mainstays of Denver childhood: the Children's Museum, the Butterfly Pavilion and Casa Bonita. Marc and Anne slowly begin to understand the differing family dynamics of the two kids. Michael rarely leaves his grandparents' house, an old Victorian in Curtis Park, except to run errands and go out with Juliana. Juliana's father has a large, extended family, with many relatives living within a ten-block radius in north Denver. On weekends, she's often jumping between houses and apartments while her mother works.
Sometimes Marc and Anne will go to pick up the kids and find that they're not where they're supposed to be. A relative will direct them to an aunt's house, the aunt will say the kids are with an older cousin. Often they feel like they're on a scavenger hunt. "This is the story of our weekends," Anne says with a laugh.
For Michael's seventh birthday, the couple plans to go to his house for a small party. An expert at baking cakes, Anne makes a basketball-shaped birthday cake. But when they knock on the door, no one's home. Apparently, Michael's grandfather simply forgot the mentors. Anne ends up giving the cake to a women's shelter. They never tell Michael.
But as the families realize that Marc and Anne are a consistent presence, they get better at having the kids at the right places. Summer comes and goes in a blur. There's a trip to the planetarium at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and program activities like miniature golf and days at the water park. Marc and Anne had high hopes of feeding the kids only healthy food, but eventually give up on that. Whenever they go to the movies, Juliana gets nachos and Michael gets a pretzel, though neither manage to finish their snacks.
In July, they try the bumper cars at Fat City. Michael grips the controls and strains against his seatbelt, his face fixed in an expression of unabashed glee. He jacks the levers and his bumper car spins 180 degrees. Now he sets his sights on Marc, whose blue bumper car is pinned against the opposite wall by some teenage girl. Their eyes lock. Michael accelerates forward, and Marc throws up his hands in mock terror. As they collide and bounce off each other, Anne yells and laughs from behind the safety railing. Michael merrily scoots away, sticking his tongue from the side of his mouth.
"I think the time spent with [the mentors] has helped him wonderfully at school, but has also helped him personally," says Sister Jean. "Letting him have various experiences and just learning experiences, he's learning how to act in different situations. And his speech is improving." The mentors have not only helped give Michael the structure he needs, but offered some reprieve for the grandparents.
Marc has also been finding some of the structure he needs. In February he got his first salaried job ever, as a market researcher with a Denver company that specializes in audio and web communications. His boss, Trevor, says that Marc stood out as a natural salesman.
"Let's put it this way: Compared to other people we had in his position in the past two years, he's probably 500 times better than they were," he says. "He just has such a huge energy. And my personal insight is that I think he's trying to make up for lost time."
Trevor has acted as a kind of mentor for Marc, showing him the appropriate way to act in certain business situations and helping smooth over some of Marc's more abrasive tendencies. "Well, I think it's an experience thing that he hasn't necessarily had in the rest of his life, a balanced approach to communications," Trevor says. He helped Marc celebrate his first year of sobriety, taking him out to lunch at the Rocky Mountain Diner. "I think it was at that point where he realized he had accomplished some significant things and now was like, "Okay, now that I'm in a normal pattern of life, I can address what's next.'"
For Marc, the next step is enrolling at Metropolitan State College in Denver in August 2005. Marc talks with Trevor about his options for a major. It's a matter of priorities, his friend says. Marc can choose to study something he loves, like history or sociology, or find something more practical and financially secure, such as business or technology. This is one of the first serious discussions that Marc has had about his future that doesn't focus on drugs and crime. It's been about twelve years since he was last in a classroom, and Marc is nervous about the schedule and his classes. He's worried about his job and paying rent. By the time weekends come around, he's exhausted -- and getting Michael and Juliana sometimes feels like another obligation bearing down on him.
"Because I can be just so pissed off by Friday and really not want to go and be like, "Oh, my God, this is one more fucking thing I got to do today,'" Marc says. "And then we get in front of their house and Michael comes running out the door, and it's like, 'All right, this is why I'm doing this.'"
From the air, the maze traces an intricate pattern of three flowers and the words "Denver Botanic Gardens" and "Chatfield."
"Chat...field," Marc says, turning to Anne and explaining that "chat" is the name of the leftover rock dug out from mines. "I think it means the reservoir was built with old mining tailing." Always the history buff, he becomes momentarily lost in this notion.
The maze is deceptively difficult and can take as much as an hour to navigate. On this hot, dry October afternoon, they occasionally run into other groups of maze wanderers, staring at the ticket stubs that feature a small overhead shot of the labyrinth.
Juliana is not here today. Her father was recently released from prison and is living at a halfway house near Stapleton. He's allowed to spend time with his family on weekends, and he's taking Juliana shopping today. So Marc and Anne invited Michael's eleven-year-old sister to come with them. Crystal is in fifth grade and plays for the Annunciation girls' basketball team.
On the thirty-minute drive to Chatfield, Crystal remained aloof, but her face brightens as the day goes on. At one point, while Michael waves a corn stalk like a sword, Crystal jumps on Marc and demands a piggyback ride.
Marc notices how both kids hunger for the physical gestures you usually get from an older brother or father. Crystal hooks her arms around his biceps, and he hoists her into the air. He has been jogging and lifting weights regularly. Since January, he's lost over forty pounds. His waist is smaller and his shoulders have grown. He recognizes their tugs and calls for attention -- it's the same yearning he once felt to wrestle and tussle with his dad. But Marc is careful to maintain the program's boundaries on proper and improper contact. He is not their father, after all. He's their mentor.
"Michael," Marc shouts. The boy is running down a corridor that curves beyond sight. "Slow down!" Michael stops and stands, picking kernels off his cornstalk. Anne tells the kids that they can take turns choosing which direction the group will take, but they must stick together. No one knows where they're going, anyway.
"I think we've already been here," Crystal says.
Marc kicks at an ear of corn and it bounces along the dirt path. He wonders if the efforts he's made with Michael will have any long-lasting effect. "The one thing that concerns me is that when he gets older, he's not going to have the kind of independence and intelligence it takes to stay away from all those temptations," he worries. "There were plenty of situations where I got manipulated and taken advantage of, and that's my fear with him."
After Marc and Anne drop the kids off at their grandparents', they decide to stop by Juliana's grandmother's house in Five Points to say hello to the girl and possibly meet her father. They spot Juliana standing on the porch with several family members. The six-year-old is wearing a new cap that still has the tags on it. It's bright pink, and she has it cocked just to the right -- gangsta style -- the way other kids in the neighborhood wear their caps. Her father, Alex, stands nearby, talking jovially to relatives who come in and out of the house. Alex is in his mid-twenties but could pass for much older. Under the blue bandanna, his face is leathery and scarred.
Alex is happy to finally meet his daughter's mentors. He and Marc strike up a conversation about the technicalities of his parole, and Marc explains that he, too, was once in prison. "It ain't easy getting' back into the real world, I know," Marc sympathizes, his voice taking on a street slang. They discuss their criminal histories like professional colleagues rehashing their undergrad years. Alex appreciates the mentors' efforts, but says they can't schedule anything on Saturdays anymore "because those days are reserved for me." He picks up Juliana and puts her on his shoulders. The girl smiles from her perch; she's happy that her daddy is back. Alex says he's committed to his daughter and twelve-year-old Tony even though he's no longer with their mother. "Angelina's got her new man, and that's cool," he says. "I wish her the best."
Alex vows to stay out of prison for the sake of his kids. But he makes no pretense about quitting the criminal life forever. "I'm going to wait until after my kids are grown," he explains. "Until after they're eighteen, because I want to be here for them and my family, you know?" Alex sells drugs, but he doesn't use them. "My dad used for thirty years, and now he can't do nothing," he says, pointing to his father, a former welder, who's sitting four feet away on a milk crate, hunched over and tired. Tony, who is just starting the sixth grade, is sitting next to his grandfather. Three generations of men, all together on the stoop.
Angelina is also happy that Juliana can spend time with her father, but she warns her daughter not to believe that Alex will always be around. "I tell her, don't get your hopes up, mi hija," she says. "Because things aren't never going to change at all. And she tells me, 'Mom, I really don't understand this. He says that he loves me, he says that he's going to be there.'" Angelina sighs. "I can't control him. I can't do nothing."
Still, Marc walks back to their car feeling positive about the meeting. By sharing his own checkered past, he hopes he made some bond with Alex on his level and showed that becoming a productive member of society is possible. "He was a really nice guy," Marc says. "I just hope that he was serious about making the change."
It's a process that's still unfolding for Marc. They drive back to their two-bedroom Capitol Hill apartment, which has become something of a museum for the many obsessions Marc has developed in place of drinking or doing drugs. Displayed across every wall like artwork are more than 400 collectable NASCAR matchbox cars that he's amassed over the past year. The toys are all in their original packages and bear the names and stats of Marc's favorite racers; the ones he couldn't fit on the wall are stuffed in plastic bags on the top shelf of the closet. "Yeah, it's a little strange," he admits, laughing, while Anne rolls her eyes.
Marc thinks about Tony. Is the twelve-year-old still serious about school? Is he buying into the idea of getting a job or going to college? "His grandfather ran drugs and guns, and his father ran drugs and guns, and there's probably a part of him that doesn't understand that that's wrong," Marc says. He can understand that. When he was young, he didn't see anything wrong with selling drugs, either. "It was so hard for me to buy into the system," he continues. "A lot of kids get the message that prison is just part of the game. Like it's a normal part of life. At one point it was for me, too."
The first time Marc went to jail in Chicago, he was sixteen and locked up with murderers and pimps. When he emerged unscathed from this coming-of-age ritual for inner-city boys, he had immediate street cred. But now he sees that it meant nothing, except to christen him into a life behind bars. "I just hope Tony's father, in some way, can tell him that being locked up sucks."
As the holidays approach, Juliana tells Anne that she can do Saturday activities again. "My dad's back in jail," she says, as though he's away on an extended business trip.
Anne doesn't ask for how long. (As it turns out, Alex will be released in early January.) Instead, she begins baking a cake for Juliana's seventh birthday. It's an elaborate Tinkerbell cake with pink frosting.
They join more than a dozen relatives for the party at Chuck E. Cheese's, where Anne gets to talk more with Angelina, getting to know her on a deeper level. "You start really seeing the people, not just Œthese are kids who need help,'" Anne says. "This is a family that needs love, support, friendship." That day, Marc and Anne decide to bring Tony into the fold, too, even though he isn't a part of the DAYS program.
Marc and Anne begin alternating weekends: Tony and Crystal on outings to Nuggets games and "older cousin" activities, Michael and Juliana together on a different day. Anne describes this as "a new chapter."
"We've gotten so much from those kids," she says. "It really puts things into perspective. What is important? What is important to us? Our whole lives, the struggles that we've been through. We have a purpose now. I don't know what long-run difference we'll make in these kids' lives, but we've done something right: We've now got four instead of two."
In mid-December, DAYS hosts a dinner for all past and present mentors at the Aquarium restaurant. Although they still have one month to go to hit the one-year mark as mentors, Meyerhoffer tells Marc and Anne that he's nominated them for the federal government's Outstanding Mentor Award.
"I think that this experience has not only changed the lives of the kids that they deal with, but really impacted Marc and Anne's life," Meyerhoffer says. "As people, as a couple, as community members, they have really grown into more than I even expected."
In the last three months of 2005, Meyerhoffer has signed up twenty new mentors -- only five of whom are male. Still, that's a tremendous improvement over the previous three months, when he added only five mentors total. The program's three-year-grant will run out in October 2006. Meyerhoffer would like to see the mentoring continue, but it will depend on alternative funding sources. In the meantime, he's doing everything he can. "I have family after family beating down my door," he says. "I have fifteen kids to match to in the next month."
Over Christmas, Marc and Anne return to Chicago. On Christmas morning, they serve food at the Salvation Army shelter where Marc lived for eight months after being released from prison. They go by the townhome where Marc grew up and run into one of his old neighbors. The woman is shocked that Marc is not only alive, but in college with a job and a wife. She remembers hearing the drag-down fights at Marc's home when he was a child, says that the neighbors just didn't know what they could do to help.
This is the first time someone has acknowledged his shitty upbringing, Mark realizes. It was real; he didn't just imagine it. They continue to tour Marc's old neighborhood, where every street corner and storefront dredges up a memory. He and Anne are making their way from the past to the future, step by step. And they hope to bring Michael and Juliana and Tony and Crystal along.
"You can't know everything that's going to happen because of what you're doing," Anne says. "You can't honestly know what you're affecting. Because we're just two people, and you wouldn't think two people with our histories could make a difference or understand that they could make a difference. We do."