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Someone who can use it

by Amy Huddleston
| December 6, 2010 8:00 PM

TWIN FALLS - A resident at Alterra Wynwood retirement center would give Wimpy Spain money on Sundays and tell him to go do something for someone who could use it.

Spain, who's given name is William, decided that the College of Southern Idaho Amachi mentoring program could use the money for something.

"Ken wasn't interested in money. Oh no, he wanted help," Spain said with a laugh as he leaned back in his chair.

Brought to Twin Falls five years ago by Ken Whiting, an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer, the Philadelphia-based program matches volunteer mentors with children of prison inmates. Mentors in 48 states provide guidance and friendship to some of the nation's children who need it most. According to Amachi, 70 percent of children of incarcerated parents will follow their parents' path to jail or prison, unless someone intervenes with an empowering message.

"The idea is to provide positive adult role models in these children's life," Whiting said.

Mentors seek to help the children realize their potential, taking to heart the African meaning of the word amachi: "Who knows but what God has brought us through this child?"

The mentors must spend at least four hours per month with their child but Whiting said most volunteers choose to spend much more time befriending their proteges, who range in age from 4 to 17. Currently the Twin Falls program has 18 mentors and 18 children - a perfect match for the moment, though Whiting said 28 more children were recently recommended to the program, creating a desperate need for more help.

Whiting said that parental incarceration affects an estimated 620 children in Twin Falls and Jerome counties alone. He said children can also be affected by the incarceration of other family members, such as uncles or cousins. Trust is built between mentor and child, and conversations are kept confidential unless mentors learn of a potentially life-threatening situation.

Spain, 82, and his wife Edna, 80, have been Amachi mentors for two years and can't contain their enthusiasm for the program. They said it keeps them young and although they have plenty of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to focus on, there is a special place in their hearts for their Amachi children. Edna is paired with a 9-year-old girl; Wimpy a 6-year-old boy.

"We're always thinking of things to do and one day she said she wanted to go to the car wash," Edna said. "You just fall in love with these kids."

The couple has taken their two mentees out to eat, to the movies, to see the alligators in Hagerman and to anything else they can think up. One of their favorite things has been a basketball program put on by the Twin Falls Church of the Nazarene. Edna's girl is a cheerleader and Wimpy's boy plays basketball on Saturdays.

Whiting said younger children are often easier to work with but many teens need someone outside their family to offer another perspective. While the AmeriCorps position is usually only a three-year commitment, Whiting has stretched his service time out longer.

The 63-year-old plans to retire in August and hopes someone will step in his place.

Volunteer mentor Dawn Devine, a corrections officer, was paired up with a 14-year-old girl and said the experience has helped her better understand the children she works with at the Snake River Juvenile Detention Center in Twin Falls.

"It opened my eyes to be more understanding and compassionate," Devine said. "Its not to be a role model for these kids but to show them there are other ways to do things and other ways to spend time."

Her protegee had never been in a library before and doesn't often go out for nice meals. While it has taken some time for trust to grow between the two, Devine said she hopes she can have a long-term relationship with the teen.

"I want to tell her that you can have these (good) things if you get an education and set goals for yourself," she said.

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