Empathy Blooms in Parent Cafés

One of the handmade flowers I received as a gift from a Café participant

One of the handmade flowers I received as a gift from a Café participant

For the past three years, we have been hosting Cafés in the Kane County Adult Justice Center through the Changing Children’s Worlds Foundation. Four times a year, we facilitate a 10-12-session parenting program that begins with a Café to set the tone for engaging people and creating a space where they want to show up and share. Without having those Cafés, I know we’d have only a few graduates.

Before we could enter the jail for the first time, we had to go through an orientation. The head of programming for the jail set up the expectations of what would happen inside. What stuck most in my mind was the warning not to expect a lot of appreciation. He said, “Even if they appreciate you, they’re not going to express it to you. People are angry, stressed, and traumatized. They care that you’re there, but you may not know or see that directly.” I wondered what I was getting myself into, but I took it as a challenge.

The first Café was about 10-12 men, and it was awkward right away. When we started the One-on-One conversation, everyone looked at me like, what do you mean you want me to talk to another guy about my life? But by the time we got to the One Word closing, I remembered why I do what I do. The first participant who shared said, “You are the first people who have come in here who did not treat us like prisoners. You treated us like people and let us express ourselves.”

Since then, the people who enjoy it will come back and invite others. With every program we have done, there are more people coming to the second session (after we do the Café) than there are in the beginning. People know it’s a safe space. People cry talking about their kids and how they’re not with them. It can be shocking in jail, because people put up walls to protect themselves. They don’t want to be emotional, and they don’t want other people to really know them. For someone to voluntarily take down those walls in the first hour that you’re with them is a huge thing. I see people realizing they have things in common. They say things like, “We’re with these people every day, but we never talk about anything like this. We don’t share our stories or talk about our kids.” People talk about the role of a father, how they were raised compared to how they are raising their kids. I get to see them getting in touch with what they already know about themselves. Even people who aren’t parents, really young guys, show up for a positive distraction, and a chance to connect, communicate, and learn about themselves.  

There have been so many positive moments that stand out in my memory. One group used their commissary money to buy thank you cards for us. One group crafted us homemade flowers. In one Café, when a participant was being disruptive, someone interrupted him and said, “Dude, sit down and shut up. They could be at home with their kids and they’re here with you” and then the participant came up at the beginning of the next session to apologize. Participants have said that since coming to Cafés, they talk more on the phone with their kids. One guy told us a story that when he talked to his wife, she joked, “You’re being way more positive. Usually you yell. Is this really my husband calling? I don’t know who this is.” They told us not to expect appreciation, but to me, all these stories show the gratitude and the impact.

When I look back on the orientation, I think they were preparing us to work with criminals. But in a Café, we are people.

Article by Kassia Eide, Be Strong Families Board Member, SPARK Family Engagement Coordinator at Fox Valley United Way, and bilingual Café and Workshop Facilitator with Changing Children’s Worlds Foundation