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Helping the children heroes
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 01/19/2009

0113star When Carolyn LeCroy was incarcerated for fourteen months in a Virginia prison she thought of herself as one of the lucky ones. Her two sons, ages 18 and 20, gave her joy and hope by driving the long trip in to see her on visitation days. The love and support from her family kept her spirits up, but looking around, LeCroy could see there were plenty of incarcerated parents who were not so fortunate.

“My children came to see me all the time,” she says, “and there would be women who never got visits. And I would look at them and think if they are this unhappy, what about the children?”

Before her arrest, LeCroy had a career as a television and advertising producer. When she was released on parole in 1996, she decided to use her background in film and video to help inmate parents and their children.

In December of 1999, she and volunteer camera crews were granted admission to the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Troy, Virginia. They recorded video messages with inmate mothers and mailed the messages to their children and families as Christmas gifts.

Almost a decade later, LeCroy is now running her own non-profit dedicated to connecting incarcerated parents and their children. Since the first taping at Fluvanna, The Messages Project has visited six state prisons in Virginia at least three times a year to create an estimated 3,000 video messages.

“There’s lots of support groups for children who have a divorced parent, who have a military parent but for our children, for the children of incarcerated parents, there’s very few,” LeCroy says. “People don’t think about these children. And a child is worried about their parent’s safety. They miss their parent.”

LeCroy’s determination to advocate for these children made her a hero in the eyes of those she helped over the years, but it wasn’t until recently that she became a hero on the global stage. LeCroy was a top ten finalist for CNN’s “Heroes 2008,” a worldwide-broadcast annual awards tradition from the news network. A panel of philanthropists and humanitarians, including doctor and author Deepak Chopra, environmentalist Jane Goodall, and basketball star Magic Johnson, selected LeCroy from 3,700 nominees from 75 countries.

After the ceremony was broadcast on Thanksgiving and Christmas, LeCroy says the response was overwhelming. The Messages Project was inundated with phone calls and emails. More and more people are asking LeCroy to bring her project to their state.

“It’s just gotten bigger and bigger and bigger, which is just wonderful because more children will get messages from their moms and their dads.”

On a taping day, LeCroy and her volunteers arrive at the facilities with the cameras, lights, and microphones. Now they have the technology to record DVD messages. Parents sit in front of colorful backdrops, some with children’s artwork, some depicting characters from favorite television shows like “Rugrats.”

“The Departments of Correction and the facilities have been wonderful about letting us bring backdrops in,” she says. “It makes it a softer piece for the children.”

Some inmates simply talk to their children through the camera, others read books. LeCroy is right there in the room during the filming, encouraging and comforting the often emotional inmates.

“For many, it’s the first time they’ve apologized to their families or to their children and have actually taken the responsibility for what they did,” LeCroy says.

Many of the inmates fight back the tears as they work their way through their message.

“Every single emotion that you can think of we’ve seen,” says LeCroy, who tells the inmates to just talk from their hearts.

“They know they’ve made mistakes, but they’re still human beings and they have children and they all love them,” she says.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, an estimated 1.5 million children have an incarcerated parent, but only 20 percent of prison inmates receive monthly visits from their kids.

“The children of an incarcerated parent are the silent victim of the parent’s crime,” LeCroy says. “These children get forgotten sometimes.”

Not for long now that the CNN exposure has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for The Messages Project.

“This is actually a terrific situation to be in, however, it does leave us scrambling,” she says. “We can always use the name and information of contacts within those correctional or detention facilities that may be interested.”

The Messages Project is currently looking for taping volunteers and funding from interested groups, religious organizations, foundations, and individuals. LeCroy says local funding in new states will be essential for the project to expand outside of Virginia.

Even though she’s been officially declared a hero, LeCroy has her own set of heroes to look up to.

“It’s hard when a parent is in prison, so I think that makes all those children heroes,” she says.

Related Resources:

More on CNN’s Heroes spotlight

Virginia DOC describes Messages


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