It only took one visit to the Gatesville Correctional Facility with Girls Embracing Mothers (GEM) for ORIX USA Legal Administrative Assistant Alicia Newsome to become hooked on the Dallas-based nonprofit.
Founded in 2013 by former ORIX USA employee Brittany Byrd, GEM provides support for young girls in grades K-12 whose mothers are currently incarcerated. On the first Saturday of every month, GEM totes about 15 girls to the prison as part of its Pearl Program for a four-hour visitation session with their mothers. On the lineup: lunch, crafts, heartfelt conversations and talks on topics like love, forgiveness and friendship.
The purpose? To lessen the impact of maternal separation due to incarceration—a topic Brittany holds close since her desire to start GEM stemmed from her experiencing the incarceration of her own mother.
“These women in prison are much more than seven-digit inmate numbers,” Brittany says. “These women are our mothers, and the love is unconditional.”
After learning about GEM through Brittany, Alicia witnessed this love during her initial visit to the prison in 2015. On that trip, she remembers a young lady who was seeing her mother for the first time in about three or four years. “I had such a hard time leaving—I cried and I cried and I cried,” Alicia says.
According to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, 62 percent of parents in state prisons and 84 percent of parents in federal prisons are held more than 100 miles away from their last residence—making regular visits tough on guardians and leading to overdue reunions like the one Alicia witnessed. “That broke my heart, and I got so attached to it at that point that I was all in,” Alicia says. “I haven’t turned away since.”
GEM is fortunate to have the help of people like Alicia, since studies show that minor children of incarcerated parents are among the most at-risk—yet least visible—populations of children. Currently, 1.7 million children in the U.S. have a parent serving a sentence, with about half of them falling under the age of 10. That’s where GEM comes in, helping young girls connect with their mothers and break the cycle of incarceration. Since its launch, GEM has served over 100 girls.
“To begin the process of rebuilding the relationship while they’re still in prison makes it so much easier for them to transition and be the mother that their daughters—and sons—need them to be once they’re back home,” Alicia says.
An added bonus to the emotional visits: Since the mothers have to stay out of trouble in order to see their children each month, they’re often on their best behavior while in prison. “The visits give the mothers something to look forward to, and they don’t want to mess up that opportunity.” Once released, many of the mothers return the favor and volunteer with GEM.
While the prison visits remain a focus of GEM, the nonprofit also offers support in other ways. Exhibit A: the Diamond Program, a series of monthly character cultivation workshops for the girls aimed to equip them with the right tools—think leadership, confidence and communication—to become productive members of society.
On top of volunteering with both the Pearl and Diamond programs, Alicia also leads a back-to-school and holiday drive each year at ORIX for GEM. Just last week, GEM also held its first summer camp for 22 girls in the Texas Hill Country, and Alicia held a drive to collect necessities for that as well.
It’s no wonder Alicia is now a board member for the organization, and her dedication gets noticed. “Alicia has made a significant impact at GEM,” Brittany says. “She’s one of our most dedicated volunteers and has devoted countless hours.”
If you ask Alicia, she’ll tell you she can’t imagine her life without GEM and the young girls the organization supports. “I’ve gotten to the point where I love those girls as if they’re my own,” she says. “I don’t have children, so I refer to them as my babies. If I have to miss an event, Brittany will tell me how much fun my babies had that day, and it just does my heart good.”
That’s a feeling Alicia wants to share with others. “A lot of people don’t have experience with children who have parents who are incarcerated, but those parents are people just like we are,” Alicia says. “We don’t all always make the best decisions—and unfortunately their decisions placed them in a position to be separated from their child—but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to see their children or have everything they need to be a better parent once they’re set free.”
Plenty of ways to help out await: GEM is always seeking volunteers to organize in-kind drives, plan workshops for the Diamond Program and help facilitate visits between the girls and their mothers. “With only two employees on staff, GEM relies heavily on our dedicated volunteers,” Brittany says.
While GEM will continue to play a key role in Alicia’s life, the California native manages to squeeze some time in for another favorite pastime—traveling. “I love every place I go to for different reasons,” Alicia says. “I’m a foodie, so I try to find the best food wherever I go.” When she visits her hometown of Los Angeles, she makes a beeline to the beach since that’s the one thing she misses the most after moving to Dallas in 2011.
Approaching her six-year work anniversary in September, Alicia recalls how excited she was when she was offered the job at ORIX. One big reason? She was impressed that ORIX had an employee-governed nonprofit, ORIX Foundation, and was excited to be a part of that. She now sits on the board of the ORIX Foundation as well—something you’d expect from someone with a heart as big as Alicia’s.
“I always go back to the quote, ‘If not now, when? If not you, who?’” Alicia says. “We like to think that somebody else will do it or somebody else can do it better, but we’re all equipped for something. You can’t wait for somebody else to fill a need that you see—if you see a need, fill the need.”