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Monday, August 13, 2012 - Page updated at 06:30 p.m.
Inmates in 'If Project' hope to help kids by telling their own stories
By Nancy Bartley
Seattle Times staff reporter
Renata Abramson hated cops. She was doing time for drug offenses and grew up in a family where going to prison was almost a tour of duty. Her mother was locked up; so were her daughter and four of five siblings.
So when Seattle police Detective Kim Bogucki stood in front of the room all decked out in police blue and creaking leather to do a safety talk to inmate mothers and visiting daughters, Abramson, like many other women at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor, went into emotional lockdown.
Then Bogucki surprised them all.
"If there was something that someone could have said or done that would have changed the path that led you here, what would it have been?"
Abramson and the others were used to questions about their crime, but no one ever asked where did things go wrong.
Bogucki said she wanted the information so she could help kids — youths just like they had been — out there at risk of making bad decisions. She wanted to help change the trajectories of young lives. But Bogucki left that day without any help.
After all, she was a cop and they were cons. Yet, Abramson was thinking. The Kitsap County woman was a mom, and most of the inmates she knew were moms. Helping kids was important — even if that meant working with the police.
Abramson talked a number of inmates into writing answers to Bogucki's question and surprised the detective during her next visit with heartfelt essays. "If someone had listened to me." "If someone had stopped the abuse." "If someone told me I'd never see my kids grow up ... "
The If Project was born. Now after four years and 1,100 essays, Bogucki finds there's a common theme — a longing for love.
That's not to say that some of the women haven't done terrible things, she said. But by asking them what they wish had been different, maybe they — and the kids who hear their stories — can better figure out how to change.
The project, now in youth-detention and related facilities in Skagit and Snohomish counties, is soon to open in Pierce County. It also has expanded to the Monroe Correctional Complex.
It takes the prisoners' taped testimony and essays and former inmates' presentations to at-risk youths and asks them Bogucki's "if" question.
The kids write about what usually are unspoken needs, and share them with the group. The If Project team members — a psychologist, a creative-writing teacher, Bogucki and former inmates — then work with the detention-center or other staff members to get the kids the help they need, whether it's counseling, a mentor or freedom from an abusive home.
"One of the keys to reaching kids is to have the right message and the right messengers," said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, who uses The If Project in a truancy program that holds kids accountable for not attending school. "We're not preaching" to the kids, he said. Instead, kids see for themselves the lives of those who made similar choices.
That such an overwhelming response could come from a simple question amazes Bogucki.
"In my 20 years as a cop, I'd never seen anything like it," she said. When she was handed the essays, "I didn't know what to do. It was amazing."
She recruited documentary filmmaker Kathlyn Horan, who taped prisoners telling their stories. Now Horan is working on a feature-length documentary on the project.
Making a difference
After The If Project team came to Everett's Denney Juvenile Justice Center School several months ago, Amy Peruse, a school coordinator, wrote to the presenters.
"As a result of your visit here ... we have connected more youth with safe housing options, and we have a clearer picture of issues our youth are struggling with in school, home lives and on the streets. ... One girl said the other day (the former prisoners) are making more of a difference in this world than people who are free."
Wrote a 15-year-old from the Denney School: The presenters are "just us, grown up."
A 17-year-old agreed: "I could relate to almost her entire life. She really helped me plan what I want to do with my future."
While the project does good for the prisoners and the children, it in no way absolves offenders of their crimes, said Sarah Bowen, a clinical psychologist with the project.
They know "the damage their crimes have cost," said Bogucki, and are "acutely aware of the pain and hurt they may have inflicted."
They are "trying to prevent another from doing the same."
Inmate turns recruiter
Last month in Gig Harbor, Jesica Bush returned to prison and old friends — determined to recruit. After seven years in prison, and three years out, she's now an ironworker and an If Project star.
When speaking to kids, her first task is to reassure them she is not pushing "some 'scared straight' program." Then Bush, 30, works the crowd like a talk-show host as she tells her own story of being an angry, seventh-grade dropout from Tacoma.
"All they want to do is be heard," she told the women at the prison.
She recalls how one boy wrote that his father was beating him. "If my mother just knew where I was," he wrote.
"We're making an impact," said Bush. "The reality is they are opening up about physical abuse and sexual abuse and there's a lot of it that breaks my heart. This program helps me be a better person."
Participation in The If Project has grown so much that Bogucki now has to limit her meetings with prisoners to 30 each weekend day. At the sessions, the women continue to answer "if" questions, and share them with the group.
"We have watched some of them go from a lot of blame to reaching tipping points," Bogucki said. "It starts inside. We have seen them become empowered, watched them grieve, seen the pain. Heard them talk about forgiveness and remorse."
"It's changed me," Abramson, 47, said. "I used to hate cops, my whole family did. Now this, God is driving the boat with this project."
In about three years, Abramson will be free, and able to participate on The If Project team visiting with kids. She'll tell them of her own "if," how she wanted someone to care about her, to ask her what she needed. And as she always wanted someone to do for her, she'll listen.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BartleyNews.
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