Approximately 88,000 children in Wisconsin have at least one incarcerated parent. Many of those children never get to visit their parents.
Hometown Heroes Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization started by leaders at Grafton-based Kapco Metal Stamping, has partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to host Camp Reunite, a weeklong summer camp for children of women incarcerated at Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fond Du Lac.
Similar to its flagship program Camp Hometown Heroes, which is tailored to children who have had a parent die in the military, Camp Reunite incorporates a trauma-informed approach.
In June 2018, Camp Reunite hosted 38 kids from around the state. In addition to traditional summer camp activities like swimming, dance, arts and crafts, archery, drama, canoeing and fishing, the children are given many opportunities to talk and bond with other children with incarcerated parents.
“In the instance of Camp Hometown Heroes, there’s already a culture of community for that population,” said Kenzie Kacmarcik, co-founder of Camp Reunite. “For this community, it can be very stigmatizing, even isolating.”
Kenzie Kacmarcik co-founded the program with Jim Kacmarcik, president of Kapco; Andrew Gappa, director of Camp Hometown Heroes; and Neil Willenson, vice president of community relations at Kapco.
“For many of the children, Camp Reunite was the first place they could speak openly about having an incarcerated mother, as many children experience stigma and shame regarding their parent’s incarceration,” Willenson said. “Camp Reunite cannot change the fact that these children have an incarcerated parent, but we can instill resiliency, coping and conflict resolution skills that can positively affect their lives for decades to come.”
Willenson had a personal connection to the cause that formed the initial idea for Camp Reunite.
“In the past, Neil has had foster children with an incarcerated parent,” Kenzie said. “On his visitations he noticed it wasn’t a very child-friendly visitation. Most of the families would travel a long distance, but there wasn’t really any interaction or sense of community.”
At Camp Reunite, children not only had an opportunity to interact and talk with each other, but they also spent two half-day visits at Taycheedah visiting their mothers.
“From the moment an inmate steps into one of our facilities, our focus is on providing pathways that enable them to succeed in the community,” said DOC Secretary Cathy Jess. “As many incarcerated women have children, we recognize that maintaining a bond between mother and child is critical for the inmate’s eventual release to the community. This camp is an innovative approach which benefits both mother and child, with the hope that both will lead crime-free lives in the community.”
Most of the children at Camp Reunite previously had very limited access to their mothers. For some, the camp was the first time they were able to visit, Kenzie said.
Camp leaders brought in correctional officers from Taycheedah to talk with the kids and tell them exactly what to expect.
“We really wanted to help open the doors to a healthy communication and support these kids in continuing the mother-child bond,” Kenzie said. “Taycheedah was a great partner in this initiative.”
Camp organizers also worked with Taycheedah to organize longer, more child-friendly visitations.
“It was very generous of them, and worked out really nicely for children at the camp,” she said.
Camp Reunite is part of Hometown Heroes’ overall initiative of reaching more children in trauma situations, Kacmarcik said. The organization intentionally kept the pilot year of Camp Reunite small, but hopes to grow to include more children next year, and also plans to expand programming to include children with incarcerated fathers.