SYCAMORE – Every Tuesday, Rhonda Keller drives from her teaching job in Huntley to the DeKalb County Jail in Sycamore to teach a special group of students: incarcerated mothers.
Keller is the instructor of a weekly parenting class for women jailed on pending charges. The class is part of Companions Journeying Together, an organization which works with incarcerated men and women and offers a variety of programs designed to build healthy relationships.
“I teach to an invisible audience of children who I never get to meet,” Keller said. “I want them to have a successful and fair chance at life.”
That starts with working with the parents. Inmates may choose to participate in the 10-week program and receive a certificate once they finish. Some of the students in the class have attended for more than 10 weeks.
Keller teaches the women values such as honesty, generosity and appropriate discipline.
For the holidays, six inmates in the class made Christmas cards for their children with poems inside that included messages of love. The inmates also took turns around the table to share their appreciations and regrets of the week.
“Even though these are your circumstances today, this is only temporary,” Keller told the class. “You have the majority of your life ahead of you.
“It’s a big world. There are so many good things in it. Be persistent, and get to it.”
The class also gives inmates books to give to their children along with taped recordings of the mothers reading the books to the children as part of a program called Aunt Mary’s Storybook Project.
Kellie Kelly, a theological student at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, helps Keller as part of a community ministry class that requires her to volunteer for a nonprofit social service.
Kelly chose to volunteer at the jail’s parenting class because she said she has been interested in prison ministry.
“Our attitude is all parents make mistakes, regardless of whether we’ve had hard lives bringing us [to jail],” she said. “Nobody teaches us how to be better parents.”
Kelly admits she was a little scared before she met the women, but once she did, she was welcomed openly.
“The best part is seeing the women full of hope and finding a way to make jail a positive experience,” Kelly said.
Keller’s goal is to make sure the mothers have positive experiences outside of jail for the sake of their children.
“The children are not prisoners,” she said. “They’re free, and they need this.”
Companions Journeying Together receives its funding from private donations. To donate, visit www.cjtinc.org.