The actor and director has been making people laugh for decades.
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, one in 28 kids in the U.S. has a parent in prison. For African American kids, the number jumps to one in nine.
For some of them, the end of summer is particularly bittersweet, because it also signals the end of a unique summer camp in North Carolina and Maryland prisons.
The camps were started by the Washington, D.C. non profit Hope House. Called “Father to Child Summer Camp Behind Bars,” they bring children to prisons to spend several hours a day with their fathers for one week.
Hope House staff counselors are on hand to guide kids through camp-like projects and games, and fathers must meet certain criteria in order to participate. According to the Hope House website, “they must be involved in a parenting program in the prison and they must have clear conduct for one year in the prison.”
Carol Fennelly, executive director of Hope House, says the camp benefits both the kids and their dads.
“I think a lot of times kids come to camp and end up saving their fathers’ lives,” Fennelly told Here & Now. “A lot of times guys don’t have anything left and their kids come and give them a reason to wake up in the morning.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And according to the Pew Charitable Trust, one in 28 kids in this country has a parent in prison. For African-American kids, the number jumps to one in nine. And for some of these kids, the end of summer is particularly bittersweet because it also signals the end of a unique summer camp in North Carolina and Maryland where they can visit their dads in prison.
The D.C. nonprofit Hope House raises private funds to run the program, and we want to hear how it's going. And we start with 14-year-old Kobe. Before camp last year, he hadn't seen his dad - who was sentenced to 13 years in prison - for five years. And Kobe joins us from the NPR studios in Washington. Welcome.
KOBE: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: Carol Fennelly is executive director of Hope House. Carol, welcome.
CAROL FENNELLY: Thank you.
YOUNG: And, Kobe, we're just going to use your first name, and we don't want to talk about what led your dad to prison, just to maintain your privacy. What did you think about this idea of going to see him for an extended period of, you know, having camp with your dad at a prison?
KOBE: Well, at first, he called me on the phone, and he was, like, Kobe, I want you to come to this camp. Call Ms. Carol, talk about it. And I thought about it, and I wasn't skeptic or anything. I was willing to go. I wanted to go, because I wanted to see him.
YOUNG: Yeah. So you weren't afraid of the idea of going to a prison or wondering what the heck what would that be like?
KOBE: I was actually a little nervous - not really much about the prison, as I was really more nervous about seeing him than the prison itself, because I hadn't seen him in a few years.
YOUNG: And what happened?
KOBE: It was great. We hit it off from the start. We talked about family and our interests and things like that. It changed my whole perspective about prison. And over that week, I changed my perspective of him, which was never bad in the first place. I didn't hate him or resent him or anything.
YOUNG: Well, so what happened? You know, obviously, as you said, you hit it off, but what were some of the things you did together? What was the experience like?
KOBE: It was a great experience. We had, like, no prior connection before the camp, and this camp brought us together. We have a lot of things in common, a lot of personality traits, our humor, things of that sort.
YOUNG: Kobe, stand by there for one second. So, Carol, we have this extraordinary young man who...
FENNELLY: I know. Isn't he amazing?
YOUNG: He is amazing. But I'm wondering: How do you do this? I mean, I'm wondering if not every child would be able to do this, and certainly not every inmate. So how do you do this? How does this get organized?
FENNELLY: Well, the prisons put up a signup sheet. And their criteria for coming to camp, you have to have clear conduct for a couple of years. You have to take a parenting class, other kinds of restrictions about the type of crime that you've had - no offenses against children, that kind of thing. And we call the mothers. We have a family outreach coordinator who works with the families to get the moms convinced that this is a good idea, which isn't always easy, as you might well imagine. We're coming to take your kid to camp. Oh, yeah. It's in hundreds of hours or miles away, and inside a prison.
FENNELLY: We usually get a hang-up.
YOUNG: Well, what is the value? Why would a mother allow a child to go into a prison situation to see an incarcerated dad?
FENNELLY: Well, because kids need to know their parents, no matter where they are. Just because a father was not a good citizen doesn't mean that he shouldn't have a relationship with his child, or that his child shouldn't have a relationship with him. His child didn't do anything. One of the things that always troubles me is that, you know, we don't ask these questions about the value of children going to visit their mothers in prison. You know, even though only 7 percent of the people in prison are women, that, in sheer numbers, there's more programs for mothers in prison than there are for fathers. And it's like we value the role of mothers above the role of fathers.
YOUNG: Well, the camps have been in different prisons. The Washington Post describes the first camp at a maximum security facility in Maryland, and there's a scene in, you know, you have seven fathers, at least one a murderer, dancing with their children to Luther Vandross' "Dance with My Father." And the men are described as just weeping while this is happening.
FENNELLY: Yeah. That's the end of the week. We close out the week with a show that the children do for their dads, and then "Dance with My Father," the last dance. And it's kind of a Hope House family tradition that we play "Dance with My Father."
YOUNG: Well, I want to ask Kobe what this experience might have done for him. But first, what do you think it does for the men? I mean, I have this image of these hardened criminals weeping during this song.
FENNELLY: The kids, the staff, the dads, everybody cries because it is really a powerfully moving time at the end of camp. And I think, a lot of times, kids come to camp and end up saving their fathers' lives. A lot of times, guys don't have anything left, and their kids come and save their lives and give them a reason to wake up in the morning and a reason to do the right thing and a reason to come home and stay home.
YOUNG: What would you say - you know, again, what would you say to, you know, people who might not see the benefit and also might think this is maybe putting too much of a burden on kids to go and make their dads feel better?
FENNELLY: I think this is about families, you know, and most of these guys are coming home, like Kobe's dad. And they can either come home to nothing, no relationships with their families, no ties to the community, and very likely end up going back to prison. I mean, we've had a handful over the past 14 years who've ended up locked up again. Just a handful, when we know that the recidivism rate is, like, 64 percent.
YOUNG: Is it also the fact that the kids go in the prisons - doesn't sound like Kobe would need this, but for some kids, is this is a real deterrent, that they really get to see what it's like - what it's like inside the prison?
FENNELLY: I think every dad in our summer camp program has this conversation with their child. Don't do what I did. Don't come to prison. You don't want to end up here.
YOUNG: So, Kobe, come on back in here. You tell people: What has this done for you? You've done two years, now, of going to camp. And by the way, we should say, you do activities with your dad in the prison, and then kids also get to camp outside and do camp-like things. I understand you make s'mores maybe?
KOBE: Yes, we made s'mores.
YOUNG: What does the whole thing - what has it done for you?
KOBE: It saved me and my father's relationship. It rebuilt it, and I know that when he gets out, it'll stand, because we had this opportunity to talk to each other.
YOUNG: Wow. How does that make you feel, knowing that you have a more whole relationship and one that will last or, you know, could last - has a better chance of lasting now with your dad? Can you describe how that feels?
KOBE: It makes me feel great. Now I have someone to talk to about sports and, you know, male things. And I'm glad that we reconnected as father and son.
YOUNG: It sounds like, you know, you have someone to talk to sports about. It sounds like it's making you a fuller kid. Do you think it's making your dad a better dad?
KOBE: He's told me before that I'm one of his motivations to come out and become a better man. And he felt like he's atoned for his mistakes, and now he's ready to come out and lead a better life and reconnect with me and his other son.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well, Kobe, it sounds like any father would be proud of you. And we just wish you all the best with this as it goes along. Do you think you'll get involved with the prison camp the way we've heard other young people have? Some have become counselors to help other kids go through this.
KOBE: I want to be a counselor when I get older.
FENNELLY: Yeah. Kobe's definitely counselor material.
YOUNG: Kobe, again, one of the campers who participated in the Hope House Father to Child Summer Camp Behind Bars program for two years in a row, going to camp within a prison, where his father is. We wish you all the best, and thank you so much for talking to us.
KOBE: Thank you.
YOUNG: And Carol Fennelly is executive director of Hope House. Carol, thank you so much for speaking to us, as well.
FENNELLY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE WITH MY FATHER")
LUTHER VANDROSS: (Singing) ...how I'd love, love, love to dance with my father again.
YOUNG: Again, the song that they danced to in the prison camp. What a remarkable young man. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.