March 2, 2017
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Meet the nun who’s helping to give incarcerated women a second chance

Hour Children serves families in the New York City area affected by mass incarceration

For more than 30 years, Sister Tesa Fitzgerald has supported families of incarcerated women in the New York City area. Photo courtesy of Hour Children

EDITOR'S NOTE

Meet the finalists for The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, underwritten by Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $100,000 in grant money. Five winners will be announced March 30 at The Renewal Summit in Washington, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.

Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, Congregation of St. Joseph, is the executive director of Hour Children. After 16 years of work in schools throughout the New York area, she dedicated herself to families impacted by incarceration.

At 70, Sister Tesa is still fighting to dispel the stigma surrounding incarceration. With Hour Children, she hopes to create a more positive and meaningful support system for formerly and currently incarcerated women and their children.

You can follow Hour Children on Twitter (@HourChildrenInc) and on Facebook.

This questionnaire has been edited for length and clarity.


Describe your community:

Hour Children serves currently and formerly incarcerated women and their children, as part of our mission to reunite families impacted by incarceration. We work inside two women’s correctional facilities in Westchester County, New York, the facility for women on Rikers Island in new York City, and offer many programs in Long Island City, and throughout the borough of Queens.

What inspired you to do this work?

In 1986, Sister Elaine Roulet, CSJ, Director of Family Services at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, asked Sisters to come together to establish a home for children whose mothers were incarcerated. Along with other Sisters of St. Joseph, I opened “My Mother’s House” as a home for eight children. I soon realized that if the families were to be successfully reunited, the mothers would need supportive housing and job training after their release from prison. In 1992, Hour Children was formed as a way to support these families, both during and after incarceration.

What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?

Hour Children supports women and their children both during the mother’s incarceration and afterwards. We make it possible for children to visit their mothers in child friendly visiting areas. We provide incarcerated mothers with parenting education and advocacy, and operate a nursery program in which mothers can live with their babies for up to 18 months. Once they reenter society, we provide the families with supportive housing, counseling, job training, as well as day-care, after-school, mentoring, and teen programs for children impacted by parental incarceration. We also operate a food pantry that fed 9,000 people last year. Women in our supportive housing program are ten-times less likely to return to prison than their peers.

What do you love about your community?

Long Island City is alive with diversity, neighborliness, and tangible support from people who care! The families of Hour Children add to the quality of life by their openness and commitment to seek the best from each other and their environs. You can feel it in the streets, the bodegas, and the sidewalk interactions.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?

The women at Hour Children are dedicated mothers, good citizens, and worthy of our respect and compassion. They honestly own their poor choices. Unlike the stereotypes people might have about women that have been to prison, they are good neighbors, great friends, and terrific employees. They become fully engaged in community education and activities.

What leader or leaders inspired you?

I’m inspired every day by the women in Hour Children’s programs. They are determined to be good mothers, they support each other, they take ownership of their personal stories, and share those stories candidly with others.

Mikhail Klimentov

Mikhail Klimentov is a contributor to The Renewal Project.