Tirrell was just 13 when his dad went to jail. Living in Homewood, a neighborhood challenged by crime, could be difficult enough. But when his dad was taken away, Tirrell’s life was flipped upside down. At that young age, Tirrell started drinking and getting high with his friends, getting into trouble. Then his mom enrolled him in Amachi Pittsburgh, an organization dedicated to helping children with an incarcerated parent. Amachi matched Tirrell with a mentor, Branden, who grew up in inner-city Detroit, but was working towards his master’s degree in Pittsburgh at the time.

“They played video games, ate pizza, and talked about life and all the difficult things in growing up,” says Anna Hollis, Amachi’s executive director. “For the first time, Tirrell thought about a future for himself, college, because here was someone who came from the same background, looked like him, had the same experience in life, and yet he was able to make it through.” Now, Tirrell is a senior at Carlow University. He and Branden are still close and consider each other brothers.

On television news, when there’s an interview with a victim of a crime, accompanied by video of a person being led away in handcuffs, there are often invisible victims just behind them—children and families of the incarcerated. Started in 2003, the nonprofit Amachi Pittsburgh is Allegheny County’s only organization devoted solely to helping those children, ages 4-18, with the variety of stressors that come with a parent’s incarceration.

Children coping with an incarcerated parent is a big problem in Allegheny County with more than 8,500 children affected. “When a parent is incarcerated, it’s like kids are thrust into a whirlwind,” Hollis says. “There’s instability in just about every regard, financially, emotionally, and academically. They’re suddenly confronted with a shameful, dramatic experience that affects them in every aspect of their lives.”

There’s an automatic loss of income, for one. “In a significant number of cases, the families are already living in poverty before the incarceration,” explains Hollis. Then they have to use limited resources to pay for court fines, attorney fees, and expenses at the jail. It perpetuates the cycle of poverty, and the children suffer.”

The emotional toll on a child can be devastating, particularly in school where their ability to learn is affected. “Schools aren’t as well equipped to handle this as they could be, and without the tools and strategies to get to the bottom of what the young people are dealing with, it can lead to behavior that results in suspensions or expulsion,” says Hollis.

One of the most important goals of Amachi’s program is instilling four competencies in children: Belonging (I am part of a family, a community); Usefulness (I have something to contribute, I’m needed and valued); Competence (I can do something well, I can succeed); and Power (I have the ability to chart my own course, and, in a broader sense, impact policies and advocate for social change that will help our community and young people like myself).

Activities like canoeing help kids gain new skills and confidence. Photo courtesy of Amachi Pittsburgh.
Activities like canoeing help kids gain new skills and confidence. Photo courtesy of Amachi Pittsburgh.

Amachi once did a focus group where they learned that children of incarcerated parents fear, and even assume, incarceration is going to happen to them. “Our communication is really around helping kids understand their ability to impact their future, that what happened to their parent doesn’t have to happen to them,” Hollis says.

The mentors are heroes, the ones who provide the vital education and support, one-on-one, Hollis says. Each mentor is carefully chosen, with a thorough assessment and background check and the relationships that form are often extraordinary, lasting much longer than typical mentoring relationships. “We ask for a year from the mentors. But when they connect, they don’t want to quit. The mentors stay because they form such strong bonds with the young people. They become family to each other,” she says.

Amachi encourages mentors to look for each child’s existing strengths and interests, like music or sports, and build upon those by planning activities around them. “The children develop confidence by getting to explore their interests and developing new skills. It gives them a new sense of confidence, of power,” she says.

That in turn has led to Amachi Ambassadors, a program for high schoolers where the kids learn how to organize other youth. They learn how to address all the factors impacting their lives, including school discipline. They testify at public hearings, go to Harrisburg, and have opportunities to travel to other cities to participate in workshops and conferences, says Hollis. “They’re able to make people aware of the problem from their perspective.”

Amachi is now working on a new initiative, “Victims No More,” to address policies that perpetuate the cycle of poverty, crime and incarceration. “Thanks to a very generous investment from The Pittsburgh Foundation, we are mobilizing a statewide coalition of key stakeholders along with youth and families to make sure this population of ‘invisible’ victims of crime receives the attention and dedicated support that’s well deserved,” says Hollis.

“Amachi taking their work to the next level and thinking about public policy, what can be done at a systemic level, is a perfect example of Anna’s great leadership,” says Michelle McMurray, program officer at The Pittsburgh Foundation. ”She doesn’t focus on doing things to kids or for kids. She wants to do things with kids and their families, ensuring they have a voice and that they understand the power of that voice.”

Amachi’s track record is reason to believe in their new initiative, says McMurray. According to Amachi records, there is a 92 percent success rate of program participants avoiding the criminal justice system as juveniles and adults, compared with 70 percent on the national average.

Amachi’s greatest current need? More mentors. They currently get referrals for 1,000-1,500 children each year and are able to serve several hundred. Right now they want to get at least 150 new kids matched. They’re in need of everyone from individual volunteers to community partners.

D’Angelo, an Amachi mentee who is studying at Edinboro University, wrote about the profound influence his mentor had on him, and quoted Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor: “A role model in the flesh provides more than inspiration; his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, ‘Yes, someone like me can do this.’”

Visit Amachi Pittsburgh to learn about supporting its work, including becoming a mentor and donating.

'Burgh-loving Jonathan Wander (Twitter: @jmwander) has written for various publications including Men’s Health, and has gratefully guest-posted on amazing sites like That’s Church.