booker-t-washington-teen-outreach_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

Tyquandra Stephens never imagined going to prison.

Ten years ago, the Miami native was enrolled as a freshman at Clark Atlanta University on a basketball scholarship. But all that changed when she returned home for Christmas break.

“One mistake shattered my dreams,” she said.

While on break, Stephens reconnected with old friends, a choice, she said, that “cost me six and a half years of my life.”

“I was under pressure and the next thing I knew, I was being charged with aggravated battery with a firearm,” she said.

Stephens, 27, appeared on a panel that addressed the emotional and financial impact of incarceration on families at “A Village Dialogue: Rise Above the Violence,” held Oct. 29 at the Joseph Caleb Auditorium in Miami.

“There is no pressure like that of being in jail,” Stephens told her audience of students from Booker T. Washington, Miami Edison, Miami Jackson, Miami Northwestern and North Miami high schools.

Miami-Dade County District 3 Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, the Black Affairs Advisory Board of Miami-Dade County and the Urban League of Greater Miami sponsored the discussion. The aim was to provide the youths with information that would discourage them from taking part in gang-related and criminal activities.

“We wanted to make an impact on stemming youth from gang violence, to help young people avoid the devastating effects of violence and its aftermath,” said Retha Boone-Fry, director of the Black Advisory Board.

Jail, Stephens told the students, “is not what you want.”

Stephens said her father has been in prison for sixteen and a half years, and her mother had to work all the time, leaving her alone “doing lots of things that I simply should not have been doing.”

Many children whose parents are in prison are taken into the foster care system, said Ronald Mumford, a CHARLEE Homes
for Children adoptions recruiter.

“This makes you angry because your environment will be new as you will likely move into a new community,” Mumford told the students. “Worse, the home may not have room for your siblings. When your parents are locked up, all you can do is worry.”

CHARLEE, short for Children Have All Rights: Legal, Educational and Emotional,  is a private not-for-profit agency that cares for children from birth to age 23 who are placed in foster care due to abuse, abandonment and neglect.

Although young people have choices, Gregory Gay, assistant State Attorney, 7th Judicial Circuit told the students, “you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And these are the choices that will follow you for the rest of your life.”

Gay urged the students not to “become a statistic later on.”

“If you are with a so-called friend and something happens, think about what you are going to do. If you are arrested, your life will change forever,” he cautioned them.

Joni Traylor, a Miami Northwestern senior, said that she “really connected” with Stephens.

The 18 year-old admitted that she “hangs out with people I know are not my true friends.”

“But it’s easier than being a nobody, alone or being bullied,” she said.

Traylor said she and her peers often get into trouble because they don’t have anything to do.

“All of our fathers are in jail or just gone. Our moms work two jobs or are depressed and don’t care,” she said.

Hopefully, she said, “I can start over with better people when I graduate and move to Georgia with my grandmother. I’m tired of what’s happening and now I’m afraid of what could go wrong.”

Cynthia Roby may be reached at