ALFRED — When Rikki White was sentenced to two years in prison for theft and probation violation, she left her 5-year-old daughter in her mother’s care.

“It’s hard, it’s really hard being away,” said White, 29, of Lincoln.

“The holidays are the hardest,” she said last week as she began to tear up.

White said she only gets to see her young daughter, who has Down syndrome, a few times a month.

“I don’t think she gets it,” as to why White isn’t at home, said the mother of her daughter.

One thing that has helped White deal with her absence from her daughter and feel better about herself is the G.E.A.R. Parent Network’s Parenting and Caregiving After Prison series, a program of Crisis & Counseling Centers, which is based in Augusta.

The six-session workshop was conducted this summer at the Southern Maine Re-entry Center, where White and the other workshop participants are serving their sentences.

The re-entry center, a state corrections facility located on the grounds of York County Jail in Alfred, provides incarcerated women from around the state with skills and experience to lead more positive lives after they are released from prison.

White and 11 other women participated in the parenting workshops.

Laurie Cavanaugh, a regional certified parent support coordinator, who led the workshop, said some of the subjects covered included challenges of parenting inside and out of prison, forging ahead with self-care and confidence, and the resources available for the mothers when they leave the prison system.

Maria Bowie, 32, of Portland, who is in prison for drug trafficking, said she also felt the G.E.A.R. parenting program helped her.

“It’s frustrating” being away from her 9-year-old son, she said. “Things are going on at home, and I can’t change anything because I’m here.”

The parenting group was helpful, said Bowie, because “you hear what other mothers are going through,” and realize you aren’t alone.

One of the exercises the group did was prepare the ingrediaents for cookies, which her son could then bake at home.

That simple task helped, said Bowie, because “I knew he was going to make them, and it made it feel like we were doing something together.”

“Being a parent and being here, you feel you messed up everything and wonder, ”˜Is my son going to love me still?’”

But after taking the parenting class, she said, “Now I have a clear mind, and I feel he can hold me accountable.”

Shunte Jones, from Auburn, was convicted of criminal threatening with a weapon.

The mother of an 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, who live with her husband, is scheduled to be released next year.

Being in prison “is hard,” said Jones. “This is my first time being way from my children this long. I’m missing out on a lot.”

The parenting program helped her, she said, because “I didn’t know how to tell my kids I was in jail.”

The workshop participants were also provided with a “Sesame Street” DVD that helps show them how to speak to their children about being in prison.

The DVD “made it easier” to tell her children about being incarcerated, said Jones.

The G.E.A.R. program also helps mothers forgive themselves and develop self-esteem, said Cavanaugh.

“A lot of them didn’t realize they had positive qualities that they could pass on to their children,” she said.

The course “reinforces positive influences instead of the negatives,” said Cavanaugh.

Carrie Richardson, 40, has a 16-year-old son, who is currently living with her sister in Topsham. She said the workshop taught her “what’s important.”

Richardson, who was convicted of embezzling and is scheduled to be released next year, said she ended up in jail because her son’s father left them.

“I did what I did to support him,” she said, “when he really just needed me.”

Richardson said the program has helped her take responsibility for her actions.

“I made a point of telling him, if you make a mistake, you have to deal with it and go forward,” she said.

It helped her feel better about herself and become a better parent, said Richardson.

She said she’s taken classes that will help her live a more positive life when she is released.

Rebecca Tryon, the Southern Maine Re-entry Center Community Programs coordinator, said the program is valuable for women there. Those putting on the workshop did a lot or research on incarceration, which made it resonate more for the participants. Tryon noted that the state doesn’t fund the program, the Crisis & Counseling Centers paid for Cavanaugh’s time to hold the workshop.

Because of the success of the pilot program, said Cavanaugh, her organization is trying to find funding to provide the workshop more often and at more places.

Another workshop at the Southern Maine Re-entry Center is scheduled to place early next year. If funding is secured, the workshop will be held again in the summer.

— Staff Writer Dina Mendros can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 324 or [email protected]

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