Kids with a family member in jail can benefit from having a peer mentor. PHOTO: Alexa Phillips

Helping kids without role models

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By Olivia McLeod

For the first time in her life, Emily Montgomery understood what it would be like to have a family member behind bars. Now in her third year, she’s trying to make a difference in a child’s life by volunteering as a peer mentor for kids with incarcerated parents.

This past semester, Ryerson’s criminal justice program teamed up with the non-profit group, Fostering, Empowering, Advocating, Together for Children of Incarcerated Parents (FEAT). Montgomery, along with 16 other student volunteers, was part of a ten-week pilot program.

“It is a chance to make a change and I think it’s a really good opportunity to get involved with the community,” Montgomery said. “When someone goes to prison, it is not just that one person [who is] affected.”

Because of its successful test run, the program will continue to run in the new semester. Volunteers will meet with kids up to three times a week over a 12-week period.

FEAT cofounder Jessica Reid said that after the pilot study evaluation, many improvements were seen in the kids. They showed increased levels of self-esteem, improvement in peer relationships, a greater ability to cope with challenges and improvements in school attendance and performance.

“There is a need for a positive role model in their lives,” Reid said. “The fact that there are university students in their lives supporting them through their challenges… is incredibly important.”

Ryerson criminal justice students’ association president Jona Zyfi thought up the idea for the department to team up with FEAT. Zyfi worked as a peer mentor with Ryerson student services and thought the program should take a similar approach. She heard about FEAT through a colleague and got in touch with Reid. From there, they developed the mentorship program.

The curriculum focuses on things like building self-esteem, social skill development, healthy coping improving the surrounding community and benefiting the child’s overall future.

Zyfi recently started a committee to solidify the programs staying power after she graduates.

It will also give more students an opportunity to get involved.

“I wanted to do something bigger for the community, but just never knew what form it would take,” Zyfi said. “Everything just worked out perfectly… [it’s] a really good opportunity for criminology students to fill a gap and get some hands-on experience.”

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