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  • Ava Martoma

Walls to Bridges Project: Changing the Future, One Book at a Time

“We are the people standing in line behind you at the grocery store. We’re the children playing basketball at the park next to your house. We’re driving in the car to the left of you. We’re sitting next to you on the train. This invisibility is what makes familial incarceration so difficult to grapple with.” - Alyssa Tamboura (pictured on the far left), founder and director of the Walls to Bridges Project.

Happy New Year! I think we can all agree that 2020 was a stressful year for everyone. The coronavirus pandemic stopped everything in its tracks, changing life as we knew it, including for children of incarcerated parents. We haven't been able to see the people who mean the most to us in-person for nearly a year, and communication with incarcerated loved ones has become increasingly difficult. We've also had to adapt to a new way of life: online-everything. But, if something good came out of this year, 2020 gave us a time to reflect on our own journeys and prepare for the road ahead. 2021, here we come!


Today, I am joined by Alyssa Tamboura from Walls to Bridges. Alyssa is a passionate advocate for children impacted by the criminal justice system. As the daughter of a formerly incarcerated parent, Alyssa’s experiences have allowed her to help others who are currently in the same shoes she once wore. Alyssa is the founder and director of the Walls to Bridges Project, which launched its book initiative last summer. This project allows incarcerated parents to “send” free books to their children, giving them something to bond over. This has become especially meaningful during the coronavirus pandemic, as most prisons have been shut down to in-person visits. The Walls to Bridges Book Project gives families a way to stay connected and helps bring warmth to the darkness.


Currently, Alyssa is in her fourth year at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She’s double majoring in Legal Studies and Philosophy and works as an intern for the Center for Public Philosophy. Alyssa is also a peer mentor for Black Academy, a university transition program for black-identified students. An avid storyteller, Alyssa is working on two children’s books, through which she hopes to raise awareness about family reunification and the traumas that may occur during familial incarceration. We are so lucky to have Alyssa Tamboura as our guest today and can’t wait to hear her insights.


Ava: Hi, Alyssa! It is such a pleasure to have you here at KidsMates. To kick off this interview, can you tell us your story as it relates to the criminal justice system and the Walls to Bridges Project?


Alyssa: Sure. My father became incarcerated when I was 9 years old. For 10 of the 13 years he was behind bars, we had no contact. I was angry at him for leaving me, and I didn’t want anything to do with him. I pretended like I didn’t care, while at the same time I struggled with feeling abandoned and unloved. Prior to his incarceration, we had a good relationship, but during his incarceration, I couldn’t get over my anger.


During his absence, I struggled in school and eventually dropped out of high school. I had behavioral problems, trouble maintaining friendships, and low self-esteem. It wasn’t until I started healing from the effects of incarceration on my life did things start to get better. I visited my father after a decade of no contact. We reconciled and began getting to know each other again.


After that, I got my GED and decided to continue with school. Now, I’m a few months away from graduating from college. I’m currently in a position to give back to all the children suffering as I suffered. I created the Walls to Bridges Project as an opportunity to help children still feel connected to their incarcerated loved ones, as well as an opportunity to help incarcerated persons feel empowered in providing something for their children. Additionally, I see this as an educational effort to improve access to books and learning materials for this vulnerable population, which is already suffering steep educational setbacks due to incarceration and COVID-19. There are millions of children with incarcerated families; they are a largely invisible population. This program is my commitment to making them feel seen and heard and fostering connection beyond prison walls.


Ava: Wow! It sounds like you have really overcome your childhood pain and found a way to channel that energy into our community. What do you think is the most important thing you or Walls to Bridges has done in the last year to help children or families facing incarceration?


Alyssa: We mail books to children on behalf of their incarcerated family members. Each book is tailored to the interests and reading level of each child and comes with a personalized note and bookmark. The book is wrapped in tissue paper and ribbon then is topped off with lots of fun stickers. We want the experience of opening their present from their loved one to be a fun one.


We’ve serviced hundreds of incarcerated persons and their children since August 2020 when our book project launched. The feedback has been inspiring. Incarcerated persons and their children are connecting in a meaningful way – I hear stories of children talking on the phone with their parents about the books they’ve received. They are having conversations about their interests and finding out they have similar interests as their parents. I’ve heard stories of children reading books to their younger siblings; this shows the children are not only practicing reading but helping increase the literacy of their younger siblings, especially considering most of these children are coming from single-parent households. I’ve heard stories of children not wanting to put their books down because they are so excited to receive a gift from their incarcerated loved one. Lastly, I’ve heard many, many stories of adult children of incarcerated parents finally reconnecting with their incarcerated parent because that person asked us to send books to their grandchildren. People have been connecting in meaningful ways and this connection is huge in reducing some of the harmful effects of incarceration on families.


Ava: It is so reassuring to know that there are organizations like Walls to Bridges that are focused on helping children with incarcerated parents. What else do people who are new to the Walls to Bridges Project not understand about it?


Alyssa: We are entirely volunteer-based and run, including myself! We are a group of students from UC Santa Cruz that are undertaking this project because we care so much about this cause. When people donate funds to us, all funds go directly towards purchasing materials, supplies, books, and postage for system-impacted children. People may be shocked to learn that we are all volunteers. Considering the amount of work and detail that goes into it, this project is incredible. I feel very lucky to work with a team of dedicated, loving people who simply want to give back to the community.


Ava: What you are doing is really inspiring, Alyssa. It’s not easy to do all that hard work as a volunteer. I know that from my time at KidsMates. But your efforts, especially, have made a difference. What would you tell the world at large about children or families dealing with incarceration?


Alyssa: We are everywhere. Children and families impacted by incarceration are a largely invisible population. For the most part, people know where to find incarcerated persons. You drive past a prison or a jail and there they are (even if some prisons are located in areas with not a lot of visibility). It may be mysterious as to what goes on behind those walls, but you can visibly see where the incarcerated are.


When it comes to system-impacted children and families, there isn’t just one area where we are. Sure, you can make guesses based on the demographics of who is incarcerated (certain neighborhoods or zip codes have higher rates of incarceration). But overall, you would never know who. We are the people standing in line behind you at the grocery store. We’re the children playing basketball at the park next to your house. We’re driving in the car to the left of you. We’re sitting next to you on the train. This invisibility is what makes familial incarceration so difficult to grapple with.


I think part of the solution is continuing to create safe spaces for people to come forward about their experiences and then be able to seek help and resources. We need to continue to raise awareness of the impacts of incarceration and focus on de-carceration and supporting low-income communities of color with employment, housing, food security, and health care – all the things that can help reduce recidivism and incarceration, thus lessening the impact of incarceration on families and communities.


Ava: Your insights are really powerful because they are based on real-life experiences. The idea of creating safe spaces, while simple, is so effective. What other tips would you give to children coping with adversity?


Alyssa: You are not alone! I know it feels like it; I’ve experienced it too. If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing it would be: you are not alone. It hurts to have an incarcerated parent. It hurts to have an incarcerated parent and feel like no one understands your pain or your struggles. But there are so many other people and children out there who do understand, and you can find community with them. I think talking to an adult that you trust is very important – finding figures who can walk you through your struggles is so important. These are the people who will tell you that you are worthy of a good life, that you are capable of anything you set your mind and heart to (including healing from the effects of incarceration), and that you are very, very loved.


Also, find hobbies and things that make you happy! Read books, go for walks, do crossword puzzles, play sports, make friends! Children with incarcerated parents are forced to grow up too soon, but that doesn’t mean we still can't enjoy our childhood. I didn’t do as much of this stuff as I wished I did. Looking back, I know it could have helped. This is why finding supportive adults are key – they will help you!


Lastly, know that this pain too shall pass. Nothing lasts forever. Life is constantly changing and that’s okay. You may feel one way today but the future holds so much opportunity. I know you may be sad today but I promise one day the pain will lessen.


Ava: You are completely right. I know I felt alone at times. But time can heal everything if we let it. Alyssa, who has most influenced your thoughts on incarceration and how?


Alyssa: My father. I used to think that people didn’t deserve second chances. I was so hurt by my father’s incarceration that I almost had this very harsh stance on incarceration – that people deserved to be incarcerated or punished, especially for hurting their family. After reconnecting with my father though, I learned that this simply isn’t true. People make mistakes, sometimes they are big mistakes that really cause pain and suffering, but that doesn’t mean they are any less deserving of second, third, fourth chances. We all deserve a good life, free of incarceration, no matter our past. Reconnecting with him also showed me that families deserve connection. In the end, this connection lessens the trauma and pain just a little bit.


Ava: You have to give people a second chance if you are or want to be close to them. Well said. We all make mistakes, but we have to learn and keep going. If you were giving one last piece of advice about how to make a difference, what would you say?


Alyssa: (Smiling) Support our project. Please visit: wallstobridgesproject.org


Ava: Thanks so much, Alyssa, for joining KidsMates for this virtual interview. You are making a huge difference for so many kids and families of incarceration. Your work means more than you can know. We wish you success with the Walls to Bridges Book Project and your future endeavors!

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