Sherwood teen launches website to support children with parents in prison

by: GAZETTE PHOTO: RAY PITZ - Finding out her father was in prison when she was 11-years-old lead Gabriella to help other children who have incarcerated parents with a new website: When Gabriella was only 11 years old, her father was convicted of several violent crimes and incarcerated in a maximum-security prison in Washington.

Devastated by the news, Gabriella, who asked that her last name not be used for this story, recalled that hearing the news was like traveling down a long, dark tunnel that didn’t end.

“I was in shock for a good two or three days,” she recalled of the day she learned as a sixth-grader at Edy Ridge Elementary School, saying it felt like someone had dropped a bomb.

What hurt her even more was the fact she was so close to her father, even though her parents had divorced years earlier.

It took a while for Gabriella, now a 16-year-old junior at Sherwood High School, to come to terms with the harrowing ordeal, and more specifically, to “grasp the concept he was gone.”

School, a place where she had always excelled — being promoted a grade and placed in talented and gifted programs — became a place where she could no longer focus on her studies.

Gabriella’s mother Jamie Palfrey, who divorced Gabriella’s father eight years prior to her ex-husband’s conviction, was equally shocked when she discovered the seriousness of his crime. She said both of them felt extremely isolated with few places to find solace.

But the most terrifying aspect of it was that Palfrey worried her daughter wouldn’t be able to return to any sense of normalcy.

“I was the most scared I’ve ever been in my life,” said Palfrey. “I was just struggling to find resources — anywhere.”

Palfrey said her daughter got so depressed at one point that she needed to say something. She told teachers and counselors at Edy Ridge Elementary who were helpful.

“Both in word and action, they were just fabulous,” Palfrey said.

Not alone

Initially feeling that everyone had a perfect life except for herself, Gabriella eventually sought counseling, something that helped her tremendously and got her back on track.

“Even if you are comfortable with it, you find there’s not a whole lot of people who (can) relate to it,” said Gabriella.

As Gabriella began looking into the issue of children who have parents in prison, she discovered some sobering statistics, including the fact there are 2.7 million children nationwide who have an incarcerated parent, or roughly one in 30 students in every classroom.

“It’s astonishing how big of an issue this is,” said Gabriella, who is a varsity cheerleader.

Last fall, Gabriella found herself in a “really good place” in coming to terms with the fact her father was in prison and shared her experience with her Leadership Class at Sherwood High School.

“I went up there, and I presented it, and I bawled. And then everyone just came up and hugged me and supported me,” she said. “It gave me a lot of confidence to speak out.”

Aurora Taylor, SHS activities director and Leadership Class teacher, praised Gabriella for sharing her story with her peers.

“It was very brave of her to share that,” Taylor said.

Taking action

After raising awareness about the issue with her classmates, Gabriella and her mother wanted to find some way to provide resources for other children and teens who have parents in GAZETTE PHOTO: RAY PITZ - The silk-screen capes on the Teddy Bears Gabriella is giving to children who have parents in prison were all sewn by her.

Gabriella decided to create a website, Children Affected by Incarcerated Parents, Inc., also known as C.A.I.P., dedicated to providing resources, education and support for youth with an incarcerated parent.

“It provides an overview of what they can expect emotionally and legally,” said Gabriella. “I’m hoping this will tie everything together for children.”

Not only is C.A.I.P. an acronym for the website, but Gabriella likes it because it sounds out the word “cape,” hopefully conjuring up the image of a superhero for kids.

“I love it,” said Gabriella. “I thought the cape was so cute.”

Her website provides a variety of resources, including books and websites that may be helpful to young people. There’s also a mood chart for children to track their ups and downs as they cope with an array of emotions that come with having a parent incarcerated.

“It shows kids (that) every day is not going to be the same,” she said. “Really, the intention is to take it to a therapist.”

She hopes to connect with other teens who are going through similar internal struggles after a parent is sent to prison. They can also put their own story up online to share with others, “which I think will be really empowering,” said Gabriella.

Offering comfort

After talking to a number of police agencies, Gabriella and Palfrey discovered how many times children are caught off-guard when a parent is arrested. Taking a cue from those police departments, who use stuffed animals to calm frightened children after a traumatic event, Gabriella purchased teddy bears that have the C.A.I.P. logo silk-screened on a cape that she has personally sewn.

“We’ve already got 500 ordered,” said Palfrey, who said there will be a place on the website to donate to help defray the cost of purchasing the bears.

Mother and daughter hope to distribute the bears at Oregon’s 13 prisons when children are visiting parents there. The project is supported by Randy Geer from the Oregon Department of Corrections.

“He’s been incredible,” said Palfrey.

In addition, they hope to use some of the donations to spend on those children who need financial help with counseling sessions to help them cope with having a parent in prison.

Taking a tour of the Dougy Center in Portland, a home that provides support for young people who have experienced a death of someone close, Gabriella’s long-term hope is to build a similar home where children with incarcerated parents can go and seek counseling.

“That’s the long-term goal,” Palfrey said.

Meanwhile, Gabriella continues to have the normal life of a teen. She most recently sat on the Mr. Bowman Pageant Committee, the high school’s annual fundraiser that raised more than $56,000 for Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.

Maintaining a 3.75 GPA, she has set her sights on attending an Ivy League school, where she hopes to study pre-med and someday become a physician.

Palfrey said she’s proud of how far her daughter has come and the fact she wants to help others by going public with her story.

“I’m just so proud of Gabriella today,” she said. “She’s the strongest person I know.”

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