Empathy Through Literature – Arizona State University

Gordon Philanthropies has a new initiative that organically grew with the support of the Arizona State University (ASU) Center for Child Well-Being.


ASU’s website states that “of the approximate 2.7 million children in the United States with a parent who is incarcerated, almost 100,000 are right here in Arizona.” ASU has a successful program called Empathy through Literature. Books are provided in 70 visit rooms in prisons and social services agencies throughout Arizona, such as the Thwajik Ke Treatment Center, which teaches parenting to formerly incarcerated Indigenous parents, just to name a few.

The statistic that 2.7 million children are affected by a loved one being incarcerated should have all of us up in arms. Besides the children’s lives being shattered, add the veil of shame for many children without an outlet to talk about their sadness, confusion, and grief. What child will voluntarily share that their parent is serving time when many adults also live in the secrecy and shame when a loved one is incarcerated? The stigma of incarceration remains strong in our society. Empathy through Literature provides books that openly address the feelings of stigma and shame, such as An Uninterrupted View of the Sky, A Terrible Thing Happened, Visiting Day, and many more books that speak to our children.

Gordon Philanthropies is focused on supporting children often forgotten by society. In an interview conducted by Sylvia Beanes, program director, with a family whose dad is serving time in a California state penitentiary, “The son said, ‘No one in my school knows that my dad is behind bars. No one knows.’” Then, tears welled up in his eyes. The pain lives in this young boy’s heart, even though his dad has been incarcerated for seven years. Judy Krysik, associate director of academic affairs, said, “Please know that Gordon Philanthropies donation is helping to alleviate the guilt, shame, and stigma of thousands of children, and their parents and caregivers, many of whom are poor and minorities.”

We have not provided a safety net for children experiencing the loss of their loved ones because of incarceration. This is why GP feels it is essential to support ASU’s efforts. In addition to this relationship, GP formed a relationship with the public defender’s office in Maricopa County to provide books to the children when their parent is meeting to prepare for an upcoming court hearing. Demarse stated, “We are placing books in our office so that children can read while waiting during meetings, and we can allow clients and their families to take home to read with their children to prepare them for the current or upcoming incarceration of a loved one.”

If there is one main takeaway from this message, it’s for the reader to imagine being five years old, watching television, and having the police enter your home to arrest Mom or Dad. Many children will end up in the system in one way or another, either by being placed with family members or in the foster care system. The disruption carries serious consequences for our children. They will most likely not be able to return to their school, have to sleep in an unfamiliar bed, and have a heart full of grief, wondering why Mom or Dad was taken away.

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