OKLAHOMA CITY — There are more than 26,000 children in Oklahoma who have a parent in prison. That is according to a recent state task force aimed at finding ways to help the children of incarcerated parents. Those children are often the forgotten victims of crimes. But now an Oklahoma nonprofit is stepping in with a seemingly simple project that's producing amazing changes for the families impacted by parents in prison.
From a television screen, Demico Campbell smiles big and tells his little girl how much he loves her. Campbell says how proud he is of his daughter and her improvements in school. "They make me feel happy, proud and excited," Kathren Campbell said of her father's video messages.
Demico Campbell is a prison inmate. He was one of the first inmates to sign up for the Oklahoma Messages Project and has recorded more videos than any other inmate in the program. The program is a reward and participating in it means an inmate is on good behavior behind bars.
"It means a lot to him, he really loves doing it, he loves interacting, he loves reading to the kids," Kaydon Kelly, Kathren's mother said, "He loves being able to tell them how proud he is of them and being able to tell them how much he is proud of them."
"The Oklahoma Messages Project is a prevention and literacy program for children who have parents in prison," said Cheri Fuller, the executive director of the program.
The program allows inmates to record a short message and read a book to their children. A DVD is made and the children get a copy of the book along with their video so they can read along.
"Reading a book with a parent is the most powerful effect and the most powerful impact on their literacy," Fuller said.
Kathren told us, her daddy taught her how to read. Her mother says she struggled in school until the videos started to arrive. "She [Kathren] sits down and she will read the books with him word for word and she started out not knowing how to read at all and it has changed a lot," Kelly told Fox 25, "And it's because of him, it's because of the Message Project."
The project is aimed at helping children and Fuller says research shows it is working.
"About 88 percent of the children who get these DVDs...their self-esteem is higher they are less sad and depressed missing their parent," Fuller told Fox 25.
The project has also seen a 50% reduction in children acting out and a reduction in anger. Fuller said the program is helping keep families together and reducing the likelihood that children of incarcerated parents end up in trouble themselves.
"When they get to have bedtime stories at night and, like Kathren does, and go to bed hearing mommy or daddy read a book, and say 'I love you' and say a prayer for them, it makes all the difference in the world for these children," Fuller said, "It helps them know that they are loved like other children, they have moms or dads that made mistakes but they love them."
However, the program is also having an impact on parents in prison. "They feel so much more engaged and involved and they start thinking like a parent," Fuller told Fox 25, "And they start writing their children more and they start really they start trying to become a better person and they take programs so they will become a better mom or dad and when they get out they can be a family."
The Messages Project provides DVDs to families at Christmas, Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day. They are hoping to expand to offer some videos before Valentines' Day as well. They use volunteers to record the videos and also provide reading coaches to parents.