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While their parents serve time, this organization gives children hope

A special summer camp and after-school program gives children with incarcerated parents a place where they can feel like they belong.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Kayla has the same summer wish list as many 7-year-olds — she wants her dad to take her to Coney Island, out for brunch, and someday, on vacation to California. But that's not going to happen, because her father is in jail awaiting a prison sentence, and he won't get out for a very long time.

For kids like Kayla, having a parent in prison can be painful, confusing and deeply stigmatizing. But life has gotten a little better since she and her mom, Nathalia Charles, discovered Children of Promise, an organization dedicated to helping the children of incarcerated parents.

Kayla has attended the Children of Promise summer camp and after-school program, while her mom Nathalia has received counseling at Children of Promise's flagship location in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Only four years old when her father was jailed, Kayla, like most kids in her situation, had a difficult time coping.

“When her dad got arrested I didn’t know how to answer her questions,” Nathalia told TODAY Parents. Children of Promise, she said, "has been a saving grace. It’s our second home.” Nathalia asked that Kayla's last name be withheld from this story to protect her privacy.

Kayla’s father, Kendel Felix, was convicted of kidnapping and murdering Brooklyn landlord Menachem Stark in a botched robbery attempt in January 2014. He now faces 25 years to life in prison.

Nathalia credits Children of Promise with helping her “find the proper language to explain in an age-appropriate way” to her daughter where her father was. And while Kayla does not know the details of why her father is in jail, she has found a sense of community at Children of Promise. After she and Kayla began participating, Nathalia noticed a difference in her daughter.

“Kayla was acting out. I thought they were tantrums but then realized this was her way of expressing that she missed her dad. There was no goodbye, he was just gone,” Nathalia said.

At Children of Promise, Kayla spends time with other kids who are going through the same thing. She has visited her dad in prison, and sometimes they are able to speak on the phone.

“He can’t call me every single day,” Kayla said. “He called me yesterday. He asks me, what did you do today? I tell him jokes. It’s hard that I can’t see him every day.”

Founder Sharon Content hopes that her program will empower children to break the cycle of generational incarceration. Children with incarcerated parents are six times more likely to end up in prison than their peers.

The most difficult part of the situation for mom Nathalia is coping with the social stigma of having a family member in jail.

“I worked hard for her to not become a statistic, so it’s hard for me to accept that she is,” Nathalia told TODAY. She describes witnessing her daughter’s pain that her father would not be coming home and hearing “a cry no 4-year old should ever experience.”

Although she and Felix were no longer a couple, she says they “were great parents — a united front” and that Kayla and her dad were “like two peas in a pod.”

After the shocking crime and arrest, Nathalia initially wanted to cut Felix off from his daughter, but through Children of Promise she learned that maintaining a connection was important.

And while she is proud of all her daughter’s accomplishments, including at school and gymnastics, she still fears for her future.

“I’m afraid she’ll think it’s OK to go to prison,” Nathalia said.

But for now, she finds comfort and support in an organization that believes empowers kids like Kayla to write their own stories with a happier ending.