Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is breaking the incarceration cycle

The program is a growing resource for children and their incarcerated mothers, and its results are highly encouraging.



Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma’s Chief Community Development Officer Sheila Harbert. // Valerie Grant

In the 15 years Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma has offered the national program Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, it has transported more than 3,500 children to visit their mothers in prison.

The results have been remarkable. The local Girls Scouts Beyond Bars program is recognized as one of the premier programs in the country. GSBB helps daughters with incarcerated mothers foster healthy, lasting relationships.

Aggression among participating Girl Scouts has decreased more than 70 percent, and substance abuse documented among some of its older girls has fallen by 80 percent.

But the program’s most impressive statistic is that all GSBB children, many of whom grew up surrounded by violence and poverty, are beating the odds and breaking the cycle of recidivism.

Not one girl who has completed the GSBB program has been incarcerated, says Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma Chief Community Development Officer Sheila Harbert. “In spite of all that’s stacked against them, they’re going to know who they are and that what they do matters.”

How Sheila Habert found her calling

Although Harbert never had an opportunity to participate in Girl Scouts as a child, she’s making up for that today as an adult.

Since the inception of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma GSBB chapter,  Harbert has dedicated her time and talents to Girl Scouts in a role she says has become her calling.

As a coordinator for GSBB, she helps implement a family unification program that provides a circle of care for an incarcerated mother, her children and the caregiver.

“Children of incarcerated parents don’t have advocates a lot of times, but that’s what I am — I want to fight for them,” Harbert says. “If they don’t have anybody to protect them for whatever reason, we address that at the troop with the mother and the child.”

Harbert’s personal desire to volunteer in women’s prison ministry led her to a part-time position with Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma in 2003. Originally known on the local level as Project MEND (Mothers Encouraging and Nurturing their Daughters), GSBB was founded in Maryland and is federally funded through a
Department of Justice grant to Girl Scouts USA.

“Children of incarcerated parents don’t have advocates a lot of times, but that’s what I am — I want to fight for them.”

Reliable transportation keeps children in touch with their incarcerated mothers

Harbert and a colleague helped bring the project to life by using Girl Scouts vans to transport young girls to visits with their mothers at Turley Correctional Center.

Additionally, the children participated in Girl Scouts’ curriculum. That first month, the program grew from five to 15 girls, and as a new troop leader learning about the organization, Harbert’s eyes were opened to the needs of not only the incarcerated women, but also their vulnerable children.

“In the Girl Scouts meetings, the children began to tell me their fears and some of the things they’d gone through,” she says. “I’m listening to their stories and realizing they don’t have a voice.”

With the highest female incarceration rate in the nation, Oklahoma is home to thousands of children who must visit a correctional facility to see their mothers.

But young girls ranging from 5 to 18 years of age aren’t the only children affected by a mother’s absence. With assistance from a small grant, GSBB staff and volunteers began picking up both Girl Scouts and their brothers (up to age 12).

“The children were excited about this, and we represented a connection to their moms,” she says.

Girl Scouts facilitates programs for the girls; the grant helps train other organizations like the Tulsa Dream Center, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Martin Luther King Center in Muskogee to work with the boys. The reunification portion of GSBB is the only Girl Scout program that includes boys.

GSBB grows with help from GKFF and Hille Foundation

By the mid-2000s, the program received new funding from Tulsa’s George Kaiser Family Foundation and the Hille Foundation. This led to a substantial increase around 2008, at which point Harbert was brought on full time.

With support from GKFF’s Amy Santee, Harbert says she learned the ins and outs of nonprofit fundraising. Consultants served as valuable mentors to help Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma identify additional community needs and potential funding, helping the program become sustainable. Harbert took a grant-writing course, the program grew and she began researching ways to further develop the relationship between a child and her incarcerated mother.

“I needed to find out how the Oklahoma Department of Corrections worked,” she says. “Women could literally be housed in two to three facilities during their incarceration, and as a child, how would you know where to visit your mom?”

Programming helps incarcerated women learn and grow

As part of GSBB, Harbert wanted to reach out to the mothers during their intake assessment and implement Girl Scouts programming specifically for children with incarcerated parents. The curriculum could continue seamlessly as the mother moved from one facility to another.

Establishing connections with wardens and administrators across the state was challenging, but today GSBB collaborates with Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, Kate Barnard Correctional Center, Mabel Bassett Correctional Center and Turley Correctional Center.

“Women could literally be housed in two to three facilities during their incarceration, and as a child, how would you know where to visit your mom?”

“We work with the mothers on leadership in prison and engage with the children at a troop somewhere in the community,” Harbert says. “Then we bring them together at the correctional facility.”

Harbert and her team, including GSBB program manager Shannon Luper and coordinator Jackie Benson, later added nurturing parenting skills to the mothers’ leadership sessions, which the Oklahoma Department of Corrections eventually adopted as policy. As a result, mothers who complete the Girl Scouts curriculum can earn credits toward time off their sentence.

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Program Manager Shannon Luper // Valerie Grant

Establishing healthy parent-child relationships, healing trauma

The program also helps kids be kids again. It seeks to help the incarcerated women develop appropriate relationships with their kids and re-establish healthy parent-child roles. Kids who experience trauma have to grow up fast, especially if their mother is incarcerated. Harbert says that when women become incarcerated and get used to being essentially treated like children, they start in many ways to act like children. The skill-building program focuses on replacing the mental and emotional capacity of these women with an adult mindset.

GSBB eventually began partnering with the Tulsa drug intervention program Women in Recovery and also was awarded additional funding from GKFF to establish a re-entry program.

“Within six months of release, we check to see what services the mothers have received from DOC,” such as a GED or drug treatment, Harbert says. “Whatever they’re lacking, we work with them to get them home.” Facilitators work to connect the women with services needed to re-integrate into society, including obtaining items like copies of birth certificates, state-issued IDs, mental health support, drug treatment or halfway home support.

Harbert says leadership from Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma President and CEO Roberta Preston has been key to the evolution of GSBB during the past 16 years. Preston’s corporate experience has helped develop a strategy to fund programs without collapsing current funding avenues.

GSBB cares for the girls while preparing mothers for life after prison

The Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma GSBB chapter currently serves 30 schools in Tulsa, Muskogee and Okmulgee while working with incarcerated mothers statewide.

As the women complete their sentences, a Girl Scouts continuum program allows Harbert and the other coordinators to keep a close eye on the children. They stay busy with Girl Scouts programming that includes monthly visits to mom, as well as troop activities such as peer-to-peer outings, school troop and robotics activities, earning badges, selling cookies and, if age appropriate, participating in a sister-to-sister program that teaches etiquette and social skills.

“We could literally see a child up to six times in one month,” Harbert says. “We have served more than 4,000 children in this program, and we are helping an average of 240 women per year.”

“Whatever they’re lacking, we work with them to get them home.”

Through weekly parenting sessions and meetings with re-entry coordinators, mothers participating in GSBB regularly interact with a Girl Scouts counselor, representative or volunteer to stay accountable and understand their role as an adult.

The success of GSBB for Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma is spreading, and Harbert regularly fields inquiries from interested troops across the nation.

Additional funding and resources always will be needed, but more than anything Harbert says the program values caring volunteers to help with coordination efforts.

Community support from people who want to “get on that bus and help us show these children a better way” demonstrates there’s life beyond drug deals, violence and poverty and drives home the Girl Scouts’ core mission.

“We’re building girls of courage, confidence and character,” Harbert says.

 

Meet Shania and Shamari Smith

Shania and Shamari Smith participate in the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program. // Valerie Grant

Sisters Shania and Shamari Smith visit their mother through the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program.

Besides the monthly visits, the girls participate in troop programming, including learning about anger management, as well as how to make s’mores and slime.

When they visit their mother, Tracie, at the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center, the girls discuss music, family and their dreams. Shamari hopes to become a veterinarian. Shania wants to tap into her artistic instincts and love of makeup. She also wants to make sure her mom quits smoking.

 

College Connect

Engagement with mothers and their children inspired Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma to officially launch Girl Scouts Beyond Bars College Connect in fall 2017.

“I meet women every day who wished they had gone to college, but they didn’t have the support of their families,” Harbert says.

College Connect, sponsored by QuikTrip, provides college preparatory services for teenage girls, primarily in grades 8 through 10. The program is open to anyone, but currently recruits from the GSBB program. Right now, 30 participants have signed up for help writing résumés, filling out financial paperwork and understanding how to apply for college. The information is incorporated into weekly troop meetings.

“In the short time we’ve been doing the program, the girls are excited about their education and can envision their careers,” Harbert says.

 

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Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry will host its annual Conference for Readers and Writers at The University of Tulsa on October 20th, 2018. The Conference will begin at...

Cost: $60; scholarships available

Where:
TU's Allen Chapman Student Union
400 S. Gary Ave.
Tulsa, OK  74104
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Sponsor: Nimrod Journal
Telephone: 918-631-3080
Contact Name: Cassidy McCants
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Nimrod Journal will host its annual Conference for Readers and Writers on Saturday, October 20th, at The University of Tulsa. The conference will feature workshops on fiction, poetry, memoir,...

Cost: $10-$70

Where:
University of Tulsa Allen Chapman Student Union
404 S. Gary Ave.
Tulsa, OK  74104
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Sponsor: Nimrod Journal
Telephone: 918-631-3080
Contact Name: Eilis O'Neal
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We’re serving up our new chef-inspired fondue and traditional brunch options like Alpine Benedict Cheese Fondue, French Toast Fondue, Avocado Fiesta Toast plus bottomless mimosas. Reserve...

Cost: Varies

Where:
The Melting Pot of Tulsa
300 Riverwalk Terrace #190
Jenks, OK  74037
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Sponsor: The Melting Pot of Tulsa
Telephone: 918-299-8000
Contact Name: Alex Cooper
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Are you staying in town for Fall Break? The Melting Pot is offering an extended weekend-long family special with kid-friendly fondue for the whole family.

Cost: $29.95 per adult | $19.95 per child

Where:
The Melting Pot of Tulsa
300 Riverwalk Terrace #190
Jenks, OK  74037
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Sponsor: The Melting Pot of Tulsa
Telephone: 918-299-8000
Contact Name: Alex Cooper
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Willkommen to four days of Oompah (or Bavaria or Oktoberfest) in Oklahoma with nationally-known German bands, authentic European foods, arts and crafters MarktHaus, full carnival and fun...

Cost: $10

Where:
River West Festival Park
2100 S. Jackson Ave.
Tulsa, OK  74107
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Sponsor: Linde
Telephone: 918-596-2007
Contact Name: Tonja Carrigg
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October 20th from 7 to 9 p.m. Oklahoma Performing Arts will host "A Night with Tolleck Winner" to benefit the OPA. The event, in coordination with the Atamian Gallery, will be the first...

Cost: Free

Where:
Oklahoma Performing Arts
718 South Elm Place
Broken Arrow, OK  74011-74014
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Sponsor: Oklahoma Performing Arts & Atamian Gallery
Telephone: 310-254-7149
Contact Name: Jack Price
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America’s LARGEST interactive comedy murder mystery dinner show is now playing at the Hilton Garden Inn Tulsa Broken Arrow! At The Dinner Detective, you’ll tackle a challenging crime while you...

Cost: 59.95

Where:
Hilton Garden Inn Tulsa- Broken Arrow
420 W Albany St.
Broken Arrow, OK  74012
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Telephone: 866-496-0535
Contact Name: The Dinner Detective
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Please join us for our annual event to celebrate and support the Little Blue House. We will have catering by Keo, a cash bar complete with signature cocktail, silent auction, and a dessert dash!...

Cost: $40-1000

Where:
East Side Christian Church
1438 S. Indianapolis Ave
Tulsa, OK  74112
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Sponsor: Little Blue House
Telephone: 918-978-9721
Contact Name: Linda Davis
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The Oklahoma Swing Syndicate (TOSS) hosts a Swing dance and lessons  The Oklahoma Swing Syndicate (TOSS) is the only UNESCO recognized dance organization in Oklahoma.  We are a 501c3...

Cost: $7

Where:
Community Center - South Minister Presby Church
3500 So Peoria
1/2 west of Peoria, on 35pl behind the church
Tulsa, OK  74102
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Sponsor: The Ok Swing Syndicate
Telephone: 918-450-691
Contact Name: Rita Robbins
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October 20th from 7 to 9 p.m. Oklahoma Performing Arts will host "A Night with Tolleck Winner" to benefit the OPA. The event, in coordination with the Atamian Gallery, will be the first...

Cost: Free

Where:
Oklahoma Performing Arts
718 South Elm Place
Broken Arrow, OK  74011-74014
View map »


Sponsor: Oklahoma Performing Arts & Atamian Gallery
Telephone: 310-254-7149
Contact Name: Jack Price
Website »

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The Fear Factory is Tulsa's newest haunted attraction.

Cost: $20

Where:
Tulsa, OK  74115


Sponsor: 75 Productions
Telephone: 918-947-9544
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The Mummy & Me dance is a Halloween dance for just the kids and mom. SORRY, NO DADS ALLOWED. We encourage everyone to come in a costume but not required. There will be a costume contest, scary...

Cost: $5.00 Per Person

Where:
Nienhuis Park Community Center
3201 North 9th Street
Broken Arrow, OK  74012
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Telephone: 918-259-6550
Contact Name: Nienhuis Park Community Center

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Are you thirsting for some fun in October? If you're feeling drained, bring your boyfriend/ghoulfriend and join the other children of the night for a show that's so funny, it's spooky. 8:00 p.m.,...

Cost: $8.00 ($4.00 for children under 12)

Where:
pH Community House
306 South Phoenix Ave
Tulsa, OK  74127
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Sponsor: Laughing Matter Improv
Contact Name: Jerry Henderson
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TU Theatre presents Man of La Mancha on October 18-20 and October 25-27 at 8pm. October 21 at 2pm,

Cost: 10.00

Where:
Kendall Hall
3102 E 4th Place
Tulsa, OK  74104
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TULtalk


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