Mother-daughter bonds

Last modified: Sunday, July 29, 2012
At any other Girl Scout troop meeting, it would be the girls with their heads huddled, whispering secrets and trading giggles.

But when Troop 10065 gets together, the Scouts spend most of the time hugging, cuddling and whispering with their moms. This is their only time to share such intimacy: Their mothers are prisoners at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women in Goffstown, where the troop meets each month.

The girls discuss their life goals, their feelings and the issues they might face as their moms serve their sentences.

The three hours of uninterrupted mother-daughter time are priceless to the girls in the program, who range in age from 11 to 15.

"I would be in a puddle on the floor if I had to go two months without seeing my mom," said Alivia "Liv" Bowen, who lives in Boscawen.

Liv's guardian, Kim Varney, said she thought from the beginning the program could be good for her.

"These kids have gotten a bad rap," Varney said. "She didn't do anything wrong, and she doesn't need to feel bad about the situation."

The troop "is her only peer set," Varney said. "Nobody else gets it."

 Three hours of normalcy


New Hampshire is a small state with a small prison population - 123 women are currently housed at the Goffstown facility - which can have some unnoticed consequences, said Carrie Green, the director of the Leadership Experience program for the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains.

"They can be the only ones in their grades or their entire schools with a parent who is incarcerated. To be able to talk with someone else who is going through the same things as them means a lot," Green said.

Outside of Girl Scouts, if Liv wanted to talk about her mom, she'd have to explain a long story. Scouts mean "three hours of complete normalcy," she said.

As the April meeting started, the girls and their moms rushed to each other, hugged, kissed and chatted before settling in.

"It's hard on her sometimes, and I know that," Liv's mom, Holly Wheatley, said. "It's a good way to catch up, doing things we used to. Our bond has gotten stronger, and her voice has gotten stronger, she's matured.

"As a troop, we've shown that we all have a sense of unity. We talk about bullying, we talk about the things that are going on in their lives."

Sitting in chairs arranged in a circle, they talked about Earth Day, about gardening and what they can do to help the environment. While they talked, the daughters and mothers lounged on each other. Some sat with just an arm around each other's shoulders. Some daughters, even those in their teens, draped their legs across their moms' laps.

If this were a regular visit to the prison, the girls would be under supervision in a crowded room with other families, and the girls and mothers wouldn't be able to touch, hug, cuddle.

"The other visits," Liv said, "there's a tension in the room, and you're relieved to be out again at the end. But this is hanging with mom and doing crafts."

Justice Erikson, 15, came from Vermont for Scouts with her mom, Cara LeBlanc.

"It's the only time we get to be one-on-one with our grandma," LeBlanc said, "and that comes with a lot of awkwardness, even in the best of situations."

The meetings are just like almost any other troop meeting. There's the reciting of the Girl Scout Promise and Law, the Pledge of Allegiance, the crafts and games.

 Continuing to evolve


In coming months, the meetings might become more typical, as the program shifts to a new phase in its second year of existence.

The troop is part of the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program, which was established in 1992. Its goals are to lessen the impact of a parent's jail sentence on the inmates' daughters, and to foster the personal and social development of both the girls and their mothers.

Originally funded with a 15-month grant from the Department of Justice, the program had to follow certain guidelines. The grant expires at the end of the month, and organizers say that while they will now be looking for support from the community, they will also be free from some federal restrictions.

The Justice Department grant provided $20,000, which covered many of the startup costs and reimbursed volunteers for driving girls from their homes in New Hampshire and Vermont to the Goffstown prison for meetings each month.

Now, the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains is looking for support locally, and giving the girls a very typical experience in fundraising.

"We'll be looking for additional volunteers and troop sponsors, and also looking at the program to see if there are ways to reduce costs," Green said. "And the girls will be doing financial literacy work and product sales like the cookies. A few started this year, but they'll do more of it next year."

As valuable as the startup grant was, it also meant lots of specific programming and tracking.

"There will be a more traditional experience now, which is really what the girls have been requesting. They don't want it to be quite as heavy, talking about issues and life goals all the time. They want it to be fun, too, to sing songs and have a flag ceremony, just like every other troop," Green said.

To be eligible to join the troop, the mothers have to attend parenting classes, and they are expected to be the leaders of the troop meeting activities.

They meet during the month to plan an activity, and communicate to the staff or volunteers what supplies they'll need, like the seedlings they planted in small flower pots for their April Earth Day meeting.

"A big part of the whole process is allowing the parents to take on a leadership role and allow them to show a different side of themselves than their daughters have seen," said volunteer coordinator Rachel Green.

That's exactly why the prison administration agreed to let the program in, said corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons.

"It's a way to let the mothers know their children on the outside still rely on them and enhance the family relationship," Lyons said. "It's very easy for relationships like that to fall by the wayside, but something like this is one of the biggest positive ways to help rehabilitate an inmate."

 Painful goodbyes


It doesn't take much to run a monthly meeting: arts and craft supplies, pizza and a store-bought cake if there's been a recent birthday.

The giddy mood of April's meeting lasted through the group discussion, through the craft and planting of their seedlings. As they ate pizza, the pairs broke into small groups. They talked about crafts they do in the sewing program and took requests from their daughters. They talked about life at home, with relatives or guardians.

But as they stacked empty pizza boxes and threw out dirty paper plates, the room got quiet.

Liv and Wheatley stood with their arms around each other, forehead to forehead. Wheatley whispered something, and Liv giggled through her tears. Normally bubbly, a bit of a ham, Liv's face looked hollow and her shoulders slumped as she walked to the car to go home.

"Saying goodbye is just sad," Liv said a few days later.

Even though it hurts so much to be reminded of what normal feels like, only to have it ripped away a few hours later, she'd never consider not going, she said.

"It's always worth it. It would hurt even more if I didn't get to see her. I was sadder than life when my mom told me she was going away, so why would I say it's not worth it?"

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SpalermoNews.)