- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Don’t take it out on the children, says Carol Fennelly, founder and director of Hope House.

“The fathers are in jail, but the children haven’t done anything,” she says.

Best known for her work with the District’s homeless in the 1980s, Ms. Fennelly turned her attention to the children of incarcerated men in the past decade through the Hope House, which was created to foster relationships between those children and their fathers.

This week, she is taking 15 children to a special summer camp with their fathers, inmates at Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md.

In addition, with just three weeks until school starts, Ms. Fennelly is seeking supplies for 75 of the city’s neediest students.

Hope House and other charitable groups couldn’t have selected a better week to kick off their drives to fill backpacks with pencils, notebooks, crayons and paper.

For six years, D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, has kicked off a nine-day tax-free holiday to lighten the load for parents shopping for clothing and school supplies. All items less than $100 are exempt from the city’s 5.75 percent sales tax.

School bells ring in the District on Aug. 27, and you are bound to encounter a collection box for donated supplies. Every pack of paper or pencils helps.

Ms. Fennelly said Hope House plans to distribute supplies it collects or purchases through donations at the nonprofit’s annual back-to-school cookout on Sept. 8.

“Most of our children live in low-income households with parents who work more than one job to make ends meet, and each year we try to assist our families by providing school supplies,” she said.

The busy advocate spent last week shopping for supplies for the second session of the inmate/child summer camp project, which started in 2000.

During the summer camp, children ages 9 to 14 are lodged near the privately operated Rivers Correctional Institution in Winton, N.C., or the Cumberland prison.

They spend five hours each day with their fathers in supervised, scheduled activities that include arts and crafts and painting a family mural. At the end of the week, the children stage a play.

Ms. Fennelly recalled the year that two children met their fathers for the first time during a Hope House camp.

“Just because a man is a bad citizen doesn’t mean he’s a bad father,” she said.

When the children clamber onto the bus at the end of camp, Ms. Fennelly said, she invariably witnesses “breakthrough redemption moments.” At that point, she can tell by the tears falling from the fathers’ eyes that they realize “the cost that’s been exacted because of their actions.”

During the rest of the year, Hope House provides several interactive programs to help father and child get to know each other and “cement their relationships.” The fathers “generally say, ‘Don’t do what I did,’ ” she said.

In the group’s reading program, fathers record stories from donated books. The cassette recordings, along with the books, are mailed to their children, courtesy of volunteers at downtown law firms. In turn, the children are encouraged to write to their fathers about the books.

Teenagers are read one chapter of a novel and are supposed to read the rest of the book and write a review. Last year, they logged 1,800 recordings.

D.C. children are picked by Brenda Marbury, the family outreach counselor, to participate in outings and to chat during hourlong video conferences with their fathers through a webcam and computer in Hope House.

Hope House moved to Takoma Park several years ago because the organization could no longer afford to rent a place in the District. Ms. Fennelly insists on maintaining a homey environment for the children.

“Our kids have to go into institutions to visit their fathers, so I didn’t want them to have to do that here,” she said.

When she got involved in the prison project, Ms. Fennelly discovered that there were few programs for fathers.

Though she has no scientific data, anecdotal evidence suggests that parents and children have benefited from the program. In nine years, only two children in the program have fallen into the criminal-justice system, she said.

For the Hope House children, paternal contact “creates a healthier child.”

“No matter what he’s done, his children still love him and feel the absence of their father in their lives, and it helps them to know that their father still loves them,” she said.

Ms. Fennelly spent nearly two decades volunteering with homeless advocate Mitch Snyder and living in the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelters in the District.

After his suicide, she moved to the beach and took several years off to write and to grieve.

Her passion for families hurt by incarceration developed while she had a talk show on WAMU-FM (88.5).

At the time, she was writing and commenting on the closure of Lorton Correctional Facility, which resulted in D.C. inmates being scattered across the country in federal prisons.

“D.C. families were torn apart. They were the forgotten group,” she said.

It was difficult to secure funding for her brainchild. “Who cares about men in prison and, God forbid, black men in prison?” she asked.

She used the profits from the sale of her Delaware Bay beach house and a startup grant from the Cafritz Foundation to begin Hope House.

“I’m an activist, not a writer,” said Ms. Fennelly, who spends a third of her time traveling to prisons that house D.C. inmates. Her goal is to target all prisons that have 200 to 300 D.C. prisoners.

“For 17 years, I thought [homelessness] was my life commitment,” she said. “Now I realize that I was training for this, and I had the best teacher with Mitch Snyder.”

To donate school supplies or to attend the cookout, contact Hope House, P.O. Box 60682, Washington, D.C. 20039; call 301/408-1452; e-mail [email protected]; or visit the Web site at www.hopehousedc.org.

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