One afternoon in November, 30 inmates of the Wallkill Correctional Facility and their family members assembled for the graduation of the first parenting class, a project of the Osborne Association.
Despite the presence of their loved ones, the facility’s superintendent and the Osborne program manager, Laura Roan, attendees seemed to be most riveted by the commanding presence of Gabriella “Gab” Kenner, the program’s instructor, who had volunteered to cut the cake.
Standing nearly 6 feet tall in low heels, dressed in business attire and little to no makeup, Kenner wears her hair Chaka Khan style, curly and flowing, accentuating her face as a plume does a peacock. She looks like a diva — but an unusually grounded one.
Variously known as Gab, Ms. G or Ms. Kenner, she facilitates the 16-week class on parenting, which runs from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She also works at the Otisville and Shawangunk Correctional Facilities.
Most classes begin with Gab standing at the rear of the classroom behind a conference table piled with paperwork, as well as a DVD player set to roll the lesson of the day. First, she asks the 18 men in attendance (the Department of Corrections calls them “offenders,” but she prefers the term “clients” or “participants”) if they’re keeping on top of any homework. Yes, there is homework.
The program is voluntary, and you see the students’ passion when the video lesson has concluded and she asks for comments. This particular lesson was about the clients remembering when they were the age of their kids and trying to recall their thought processes in those days.
“So imagine when you were the same age as your child or children,” she said as students nod in affirmation. “Imagine someone your current age talking to you as though you are an adult, expecting you to understand like you are an adult. You’re worlds apart.”
Gabby navigates each session easily and comfortably. She has been doing the job since 2014, beginning at an entry-level position and working her way up to become a family services specialist. Her duties include event planning, data entry and interacting with prison staff, as well as individual counseling one-on-ones, known as “I.C.”
During one such session, I spoke with Gab about my 16-year-old son, who was only five weeks old when I came to prison in 2001. Our relationship is strained to say the least.
Within 20 minutes of talking to Kenner, tears were streaming down my face. I felt like I was speaking to Dr. Phil and Oprah all at once. Kenner opened up to me about her mom raising her as a single parent, and the water welled in her eyes too, as the connection manifested itself right then and there.
On her suggestion, I’d recently applied a strategy of compromise with my son, a major shift from the “my way or the highway” approach I’d taken, without success, for years. The result was a positive step — his reluctant decision to attend the graduation of a family member at my request. Still, the relationship had a ways to go.
“How often do you write to him?” she asked. “Writing once a week shows that you never give up and is your evidence that you always are willing to try to communicate.”
She was right.
A new class began on April 12 with roughly 25 students. As the two-hour session came to an end, the attendees seemed to feel they may have a chance at a fresh start. Gab was doing her best Chaka Khan impression yet and changing the future for some very fortunate dads and kids.
Read more from The Wallkill Journal’s April 30 issue here.
Email Shawn Pettaway at [email protected]