A year ago, Tongass Alaska Girl Scout Council entered into a collaborative relationship with Gastineau Human Services, Catholic Social Services and a number of faith-based entities in Juneau. Tongass had received a $28,000 grant from Girl Scouts USA to fund a pilot "Step Ahead" program - an effort to rekindle positive relationships between individuals on probation, on parole or those who are incarcerated and their daughters.
The way has not been easy, facilitators say, but the rewards have been great.
Kathy Buss of TAGS notes that initial plans for quilting bees really didn't appeal to the potential clients. The women themselves came up with the idea of filming a video about the plight of separated families. "The plans we had made ahead didn't really happen because when the parents took over, it was way better than anything I could have thought up in the office," Buss said.
"We have one to six families. Some kids are in foster care. Mom and Dad may be estranged. Getting people together under these circumstances is like putting a puzzle together behind your back," Buss said. "We've found it works best to hold the meetings in the evenings at Gastineau because it's easy to get people who are on probation or living in a halfway house to turn out."
"One of the things that has really helped with the healing process is doing things that 'regular' or 'normal' families would do," Buss added. With the assistance of volunteers and local businesses, plus an occasional bus rental, the Step Ahead troop and parents have gone bowling, attempted the climbing wall at the Rock Dump, and made drums, created designs to apply to plates and gone tubing in the snow at Eaglecrest Ski Area. "Some guys who had lived in Juneau 25 years had never been to Eaglecrest," Buss said.
"One father said, 'I'm glad I am clean and sober; if I was drunk, dying Easter eggs would be chaos for me and I would have to get out of here.' You sit in a room with a family that has been estranged, and it's a real major step to make a plate that says, 'I love you, Daddy.' This program has done more than any of the mandated correctional programs can do because there are no requirements. They don't have to come," Buss said.
Two fathers participated in Tongass' annual father-daughter dance. "It was such a joy for the daughters to be dressed in their finest and to be validated in this way," she noted.
"There are no rules for this kind of thing," Buss added. "You never know what will work. One dad requested a needle and thread and an ironing board for one meeting. What he wanted to do was iron on his daughter's patches." Such unexpected successes often bring tears to her eyes.
Step Ahead meets on Saturdays, with the help of VISTA volunteer Rosemary Williams. Activities have included Easter egg dying - with extra eggs colored for AWARE shelter residents.
Plans for future activities include riding the new fast ferry to Sitka and back with a picnic lunch later this year, and having the girls attend overnight camp during the summer.
"I am totally thrilled," said Janet Forbes, a case manager with GHS and project director for "Step Ahead" in Juneau. "The program has served a purpose in family re-connection."
Forbes says the weekly program has given her a way to know her clients in a whole new way from talking to them in her office. "We get to be reactive instead of proactive. At first we were targeting women, but when I talked to men about the program, more of them wanted to participate than we anticipated. Men were like, 'Wow, can I do this too?' We have whole families attending; the sons come too. It makes it really neat and really fun. It's all about healthy families," Forbes said.
Three of the men participating in Step Ahead supplied written statements about how the program benefited them. D.S., a resident at Glacier Manor halfway house, has been attending with his three daughters. "This is their first time participating in Girl Scouts," he wrote. "I have seen a great change in my daughters' attitudes towards one another ... and to see my girls all become Girl Scouts really makes me happy." D.S. feels the program will help him to "be a better father."
P.S. has been incarcerated for more than two years, and had very little contact with his son and daughter since his divorce from their mother. In fact, his daughter wanted to have nothing to do with him, he wrote. But since all three have attended Step Ahead, "It's been fun for all of us, and a great way for us to get to know each other." His daughter now calls P.S. just to chat.
The third father, J.G., says Step Ahead "has given me an opportunity to watch my children grow and to learn new things in a healthy and positive way ... the program has helped to bring my family closer together as a whole."
"The more we can keep families together," Forbes said, "the better [it is] for the community as a whole."
After reading testimonials like these, GSUSA has funded the program for a second year, and TAGS can apply for a similar grant to support a third year of the program. Step Ahead is an offshoot of a national Girl Scout program called Girl Scouts Beyond Bars; Step Ahead represents the first time the program has been attempted in Southeast Alaska.