Md. Woman Helps Children Whose Parents are in Jail

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File photo of a jail. (credit: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

File photo of a jail. (credit: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

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FREDERICK, Md. — Shari Ostrow Scher always believed she’d start the Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership when she retired.

That was a few years ago.

She’s been running the nonprofit organization for the last eight years — all while maintaining her job as family involvement supervisor for Frederick County Public Schools.

“I always thought I would do this after retirement, but then I thought, ‘Why wait?'” Scher said recently after a partnership board meeting.

The group organizes several projects to benefit the children and families of people held in the Frederick County Adult Detention Center.

In past years, they have built a reading nook at the jail and held salon days for women left to care for their families after a loved one was incarcerated. COIPP recently started a small group where women touched by incarceration meet to offer support, and COIPP is working on a scholarship to Frederick Community College for women in the same position.

Scher often spends her early mornings or evenings talking with these women.

“They’re looking for hope, and they also want to make sure their own children will be OK,” Scher said. “And I can look at them and say, ‘Your children will be fine, if you are fine.’ I truly believe that.”

She knows from experience. Scher’s father was incarcerated when she was a teen.

“I was very silent about that for many, many years,” she said. “I was not public until about six to eight years ago. I was doing a speaking engagement, and I called my children, because we all loved my dad so much and he’d passed on, and asked them what they thought. They all said, ‘Mom, go for it, that’s not all we know of Grandpa.'”

Scher said speaking openly is just another way she hopes to help others.

“It became important because I have a wonderful life. And I think it’s important for people to know they can go through hard times and come out the other side,” she said.

According to a 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, an estimated 1,706,600 children had parents in state or federal prison.

For those children in Frederick County, COIPP offers resource bags with books, stationery, stamps, a disposable camera, picture frames and journals. The bags also include a soft gift for the child.

“One of the things we know about children who have an incarcerated loved one is regardless of what that person did, that child misses them,” she said. “Soft things like stuffed animals that a young child can talk to, or a Beanie Baby that a middle school child can embrace, a pillow or soft blanket, give children something comforting. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Scher, who is also an adjunct professor at Hood College, started work in early childhood education 45 years ago.

“It’s been a fabulous journey. I’ve been blessed to work in child care, public schools, with community colleges, at Hood, speaking, working directly with children. How many people are that lucky?” she said.

Scher tries to pay that luck forward. She and her husband, Howie Scher, started a second nonprofit called Children of Promise, Children of Hope.

The organization set up a library at a school in a remote area of the Dominican Republic, where the couple stayed as part of a Spanish immersion program for Howie. They set a goal to send 50 Spanish-language books to create a small library; they have now delivered their 1,800th book.

“Her spirit and her enthusiasm for everything is just so amazing,” said Barb Foster, who is vice president of COIPP and does outreach programs at the jail through Church Women United. “She is just so warm and loving. What she does just blows me away.”

Scher said none of her volunteer work would be possible without the support of her family.

“The most important thing about me is that I have an absolutely supportive husband, and I’ve got terrific kids. And I even have a supportive dog,” Scher said. “Lucky again.”

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(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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