Piedmont native shuttles children to visit mothers behind bars
by Laura Gaddy
lbgaddy@annistonstar.com
Sep 29, 2013 | 5244 views |  0 comments | 72 72 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Michelle Ludy-Bivins, at a park in Piedmont. (Photo by Anita Kilgore/Consolidated News Service)
Michelle Ludy-Bivins, at a park in Piedmont. (Photo by Anita Kilgore/Consolidated News Service)
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PIEDMONT – In 2007 Piedmont native Michelle Ludy-Bivins began trying to bridge the gaps between children and their incarcerated parents in Georgia.

That year, Ludy-Bivins said, she started renting vehicles to take children from some of Atlanta’s harshest neighborhoods to visit their moms in prison. This year she formalized her efforts and began the Bridges for Hope Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to care for children with incarcerated parents. Now she wants to extend her work into Alabama.

“People don’t normally think about the kids that are left behind,” Ludy-Bivins said during a recent visit to her hometown.

In Alabama, Ludy-Bivins plans on taking the same steps she took with the program in Georgia, where she started by telling prison officials, the inmate population and the public about her work.

Ludy-Bivins said that in 2007 she met with the warden at Lee Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Ga., to ask if she could help people by bringing children to see their incarcerated parents. The officials there gave her the chance to speak with incarcerated moms to find out if the inmates at Lee Arrendale needed someone to bring their children for visits.

“Everybody did. I was shocked,” Ludy-Bivins said.

In Alabama, she would like to begin by working with Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka. But Ludy-Bivins has not yet begun the formal process of working with inmates there, according to a Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman.

At both Lee Arrendale and Tutwiler there is at least one other organization doing similar work. But a spokeswoman at Lee Arrendale said there's still a need for more help at that facility, which houses about 1,400 inmates.

Aid to Inmate Mothers, a Montgomery-based nonprofit, already takes children from across Alabama to see their parents incarcerated in Tutwiler and at the Montgomery Women’s Facility, said Carol Potok. She said her organization monthly takes about 50 children and teens with no other form of transportation to see their mothers.

Aid to Inmate Mothers does not transport children from other states to see their parents in Alabama facilities. And it only transports children from Alabama who have no other way to see their parents.

Ludy-Bivins said she hopes her organization can start taking children from Atlanta to see their moms who are incarcerated in Alabama.

She added that there are roughly 3,000 women in Alabama facilities, and that they often serve sentences that last about five years.

The Alabama Department of Corrections does not keep statistics on the number of inmates who are parents. Potok said that, based on national figures, she estimates that 80 percent of female inmates are mothers and that about 65 percent of women inmates in Alabama facilities have children under the age of 18.

In 2007 there were 744,000 inmates in prisons across the nation, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Fifty-two percent of state inmates and 63 percent of federal inmates at that time were parents to an estimated 1.7 million children.

For about seven years Ludy-Bivins funded her project in Georgia with her own money, taking van-loads of children to see their parents once a month. The cost to rent one 15-passenger van, she said, is $150 plus fuel.

On average, Bridges for Hope transports about 15 children and teens during the monthly visits. Ludy-Bivins said that since the program began about 70 children have participated.

This year, Bridges for Hope has received support from Walmart and Target, who have supported her efforts with gift cards. And, she said, a local church helped buy school supplies for children helped by Bridges for Hope.

At about the same time Ludy-Bivins began seeking nonprofit status, she began partnering with another Piedmont native, Carlus Houston, now the program director for Bridges for Hope. After graduating from Piedmont High School in 1991, Houston earned a psychology degree and moved to Atlanta, where he has since worked in mental health treatment.

“I felt like this was a true social service,” he said of Bridges for Hope. “This service is needed in every state; in every community.”

Houston said the program is important for inmates’ children because visiting their parents gives them a better sense of their identity. And, he added, without programs like Bridges for Hope, some children would be unable to make prison visits.

“There are families that are interested and want to visit, but they don’t have the means to get there,” Houston said.

Since becoming the program director at Bridges for Hope, Houston and Ludy-Bivins have add a post-visit wind-down to the program. Houston described the wind-down time as recreational therapy and said it has become an important component of what Bridges for Hope.

The visits can be emotionally tumultuous for children, and transitioning from the prison to their home life can be jarring, Houston said. He added that the wind-down gives them the chance to process the visit in a supportive environment with other children who are going through the same thing.

During the wind-down about a half-dozen volunteers, including Ludy-Bivins’ two sons, help chaperone the children and teens.

“Sometimes they pull us aside and they ask us questions,” Houston said.

Organizers have planned a range of activities for the wind-downs. During one session organizers rented skates and bikes for the kids and took them to a park, and during an upcoming session organizers plan a horseback ride, he said.

“A lot of them are inner-city children,” he said. “These are things they have never experienced.”

The child of a pastor and a former abuse-intervention specialist, Ludy-Bivins didn’t know about the hardships inmates’ children face when she decided to begin helping children. Ludy-Bivins said her childhood in Piedmont and her professional career that followed have been so good and they prompted her to want to give back.

“It was just in my blood, I guess,” Ludy-Bivins said.

Ludy-Bivins was driving home alone on a trip through America’s heartland when she decided to help the children. She while driving she said a prayer to thank God for the things she has and then she asked what she could do for him.

“It just came to my spirit. I tried to fight it,” Ludy-Bivins said. “It was so penetrating and sound.”

An hour later she turned the radio on and she said the people on talk radio station she settled on were talking about the number of children who have parents in prison.

“I was just blown away by the kids that were affected,” Ludy-Bivins said.

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LGaddy_Star.

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