Beyond Bars: UH Summer Camp Offers Hope to Girls With Incarcerated Parents

Two-year-old Camp Elizabeth program aims to break cycle of crime, boost self-esteem of young girls

A summer residential camp under way at the University of Houston is working to break the cycle of crime within families, taking particular aim at addressing the needs of girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who have parents or other close relatives in prison.

The need for such a program is borne out in sobering statistics. On any given day in the United States, there are more than two million minor children with an incarcerated parent, according to the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents. More than seven million children have a parent under some form of correctional supervision.

Separation from parents by prison can be devastating to children, resulting in feelings of abandonment, sadness and anger, and can lead to eating and sleeping disorders, lower academic performance and disruptive behavior. Studies show that children of prisoners are six times more likely to go to prison than their peers. They are seven times more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.

Volunteer counselors, a forensic psychologist and a professional clinical therapist are addressing the issue by giving of their time and expertise to Camp Elizabeth, now in its second year.

The program is named in memory of Jane Elizabeth Wynn, a single mother of 10 children who as a young woman emerged from an abusive relationship with her former husband to receive training and employment in a clerical position in the twilight years of her life.

Twenty-seven girls were selected for the weeklong camp from a list provided by Prison Fellowship (a 32-year-old organization that serves prison inmates and their families). In addition, some of the campers are from families displaced by Hurricane Katrina who continue to experience anxiety. All camp costs are covered by donations.

Trina Gordon, a forensic psychology adjunct professor at the University of Houston-Victoria, will be the keynote speaker when the camp concludes Friday (Aug. 1). Anitra Shelton-Quinn, assistant professor of school psychology at UH-Victoria, is involved with the camp as a consultant, dorm counselor and camp clinical therapist. She also is on the board of directors of Elizabeth Haven, the nonprofit organization that is putting on the camp.

Girls in the camp receive guidance and a caring perspective from volunteer counselors from Houston, Dallas, Louisiana and Maryland. All counselors must undergo a background check and a volunteer training session. The girls are housed in campus dorms.

“Our goal is to build self-esteem,” Shelton-Quinn said. “There isn’t a young woman who can’t accomplish great things with the proper support system. But there are many young women who just need a little help, a little support, a little encouragement. That’s where Camp Elizabeth comes in.”

In addition to building self-esteem, the camp helps participants learn coping strategies to better deal with the stress of having someone they love in prison. Counseling and physical fitness activities also are part of the program. The camp concludes at 1 p.m. Friday (Aug. 1) with a fashion show and tea in which the participants will model and keep new outfits picked out for them by camp staff.

About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas’ premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 35,000 students.