Program helps kids of prisoners break the cycle

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Nearly 60 percent of children who have a parent in prison will get locked up later in life ? a statistic that the Odyssey Program is determined to change.

The countywide program pairs volunteers, or mentors, with children who have parents in prison. It?s how 13-year-old Zhane Edwards met Pleasantville resident Debbie Linder. The two were paired up four years ago, and have grown extremely close since.

Linder is a busy woman. She is vice president of a big New York City bank, but doesn?t let that get in the way of spending Saturdays with Edwards. Even though she has two grown sons of her own, Linder brags about Edwards as if she was her own child. ?Zhane was the most improved sixth-grade student,? she says. ?She?s doing a special computer thing this summer.?

The feeling is mutual. ?She?s like my second mom,? Edwards says of Linder. ?It?s wonderful to have her in my life.?

Edwards? mother is also very appreciative of Linder?s presence. ?It?s like an angel sent a gift,? she says. ?It?s a blessing to have someone like her.?

Edwards doesn?t like to think about the day her father left for federal prison. She was only 5 years old, and says she felt as if her life as she knew it was over.

Linder?s presence in Edwards? life helps fill the void her father left when he went away. Together, they bake cupcakes, make flip flops and participate in a variety of activities that help Edwards feel better about the situation.

?I?ve become really attached to Zhane,? Linder says. ?[My husband and I] love to watch her grow. I love being involved and seeing the difference, you really see it.?

The Odyssey Program was launched by Bindu Varughese in 2004 under Westchester County?s Big Brothers Big Sisters program. She was also the matchmaker who paired Edwards and Linder together. As successful as the program has been for the pair, it has remained under the radar. Now, the Odyssey Program is in danger of losing its funding, simply because not enough kids are enrolled.

Varughese hopes that Edwards? story will inspire others to sign up. She hopes that people will see Edwards? success and realize that with a little help, children of prisoners can beat the odds and prove that in some cases, the apple falls far from the tree.

Edwards is one of 22 children enrolled in Odyssey. The program needs 50 kids in order to keep its funding.

Statistics show that children who graduate from the program are 50 percent less likely than their peers to commit a crime.

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