Voices from See Us, Support Us:
My love for reading started when I was in second grade. My classroom had a library with hundreds of books. During free time, I would scour them and read as many as I could. A classmate and I even challenged each other to a reading contest. Of course, I won. I loved reading, and I loved school.
This love started to fade when I entered into fourth grade. It was hard to focus long enough to read a sentence, let alone an entire book. I suddenly didn’t want to talk to my friends whom I had so eagerly engaged with before. School didn’t seem interesting. I just wanted to be at home with my father – he had suddenly disappeared, and I didn’t know where he went. I later learned he had been sent to jail.
He was gone for about a year before he returned home. Though, things were no longer the same. My parents divorced and suddenly my siblings and I were going back and forth between two houses. It was traumatizing to be uprooted, but at least I got to be with my father. He helped me with my homework and science projects. My interest in school returned, though it was only for a brief moment.
My father suddenly disappeared again, but this time he wasn’t coming home soon. I still remember how I felt when I found out. While getting out of the car for school, my mother told me he had been sentenced to 15 years in prison. Shocked and numb, I went and stood outside my classroom crying. My teacher approached and asked me what was wrong. I told them and begged to leave school and go home. They stood there baffled, not knowing how to react. They quietly ushered me into the classroom, gave me a box of tissues and promptly began the school day. They never brought up the subject again.
This was the first of many instances in which I did not feel supported by my educators. I was disinterested, disengaged and disheartened at school. I developed behavioral problems and was frequently punished. I had trouble making and keeping friends. I couldn’t focus on assignments. My grades and social relationships suffered. My educators were ill-equipped to support me. At home, I suffered abuse from my mother. Among many things, she prohibited me from speaking to or visiting my father. The hole left inside of me with his incarceration only grew larger over time. The lack of support at home and at school made me invisible and unlovable.
By my junior year of high school, my love for school, particularly for reading, had completely vanished. I often visited the library, but not to engage in a friendly competition or to explore the shelves as I once did. I wanted to be alone. I fell deeper into isolation and depression. Eventually, I dropped out of high school. I frequently fantasized about what my life would look like if those around me lifted me up as they saw me failing, or better yet, what it would be like if my father had never been incarcerated.
This was over ten years ago. Though it seems lifetimes past, the pain of missing my father and experiencing my life unravel will never leave me. Even though I grew older, I felt like I was stuck as that little girl outside of her classroom crying because her father wasn’t coming home. The desperation I felt at losing my parent and the isolation I felt by not having support blocked my ability to imagine a more positive future for myself. Consequently, my educational journey has been far from linear. My love for learning returned only after I was able to begin healing from the trauma of being a child with an incarcerated parent.
After years of baby steps, I received my GED. I then attended community college. My educators supported me every step of the way, connecting me with resources to support both my academic and emotional growth. I transferred to a University of California school. Now here I am. I graduate soon with honors and just recently learned I was accepted into law school. I no longer need to imagine what a brighter future would look like because today I have it – and I got it through educators supporting my goals and through finding my love of learning and reading again. Now I know how valuable supporting the education of children with incarcerated parents is. It’s why I created The Walls to Bridges Book Project.
I know what it’s like to be a child struggling in school as I grapple with my parent’s incarceration. I know what it’s like to want any connection to show me I was loved and not forgotten. I know what it’s like to lose my love for reading and learning. So, I set to work creating a program to help children as they navigate these tough experiences. My team and I send children books as presents from their incarcerated parent. Each book is carefully picked to meet the reading needs and interests of each child. It comes with a personalized note from their parent and an uplifting bookmark. We encourage families to talk to each other about the books they read in an effort to keep kids engaged. Most importantly, it keeps children and their incarcerated parents connected.
For many system-impacted children, education can be the lifeline that helps them succeed in the face of parental incarceration. It can give purpose, belonging and self-esteem. Though it took me a while, education was my lifeline too. Now, I’m doing everything I can to give back.
Alyssa Marie Tamboura is a fourth-year student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As an adult child of a formerly incarcerated parent, Alyssa is a staunch advocate for system-impacted families and this passion has led her to found Walls to Bridges, a restorative justice dialogue program for incarcerated individuals and their families. In addition to restorative justice, Walls to Bridges also sends books to children on behalf of their incarcerated family. Alyssa serves as a Steering Committee Member for the Bay Area Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, has volunteered with numerous organizations focused on policy and advocacy for system-impacted families, and has brought programming into carceral facilities in the Bay Area