Ten-year-old Shawnkayla's father is living behind bars, but an after-school program in the Jane and Finch area where she paints, dances and plays with other children provides a good distraction.
"They help me get my mind off [it], so I don't cry all the time," she said.
Shawnkayla was part of a 10-week pilot project that connected 17 Ryerson University criminal-justice students with children who have a family member in prison. The university developed the program with the non-profit group Fostering, Empowering, Advocating Together (FEAT) for Children of Incarcerated Parents, and is now looking to making community outreach part of the curriculum.
"It's a really good way to link our students to fields that are directly related to our program," said Jona Zyfi, president of Ryerson's Criminal Justice Students' Association. "And then, of course, making the smallest impact on someone's life is amazing."
After she heard of the organization from a colleague, Ms. Zyfi approached FEAT's Jessica Reid, who co-founded the group with her father, Derek Reid, in 2011.
Ms. Reid devised a format for the program to help children cope with adversity by incorporating group activities and one-on-one interaction into weekly evening sessions at Ephraim's Place Community Centre, where the group already runs an after-school program. The sessions, which began in early October, involve informal sports, cooking and budgeting meals, art, leadership workshops and résumé-building.
Jessy, a nine-year-old enrolled with FEAT, caught a glimpse of what it could be like to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer.
"It's really fun having the mentors here," he said. "I get to see an older person who's in university. They're going to pass and they're going to get a good job. They can be whatever they want."
When Jessy was two years old, his father was sent to jail. Jessy visited him on Sundays before his father returned home last August.
"I felt sad and angry because I couldn't see my dad all the time," Jessy said. "I felt like I had no dad."
Sharing his feelings and frustrations during "circle sessions" with other FEAT members helped soothe him, he said.
That kind of first-hand experience with those affected by the penal system is the type of training Ryerson's Criminal Justice and Criminology department struggles to bring to its students.
"It's a gap that we've been well aware of," said Kim Varma, chair of the program, adding that Ryerson currently offers field trips to prisons and courts but nothing as substantial as the FEAT partnership.
That may change soon, however. Dr. Varma said her department is working toward incorporating similar opportunities into the curriculum, such as in a youth-justice course she teaches. For now, however, the FEAT peer/mentorship program will continue in the new year on a volunteer basis, with applications from the next batch of Ryerson students due in January. Because of its success, the program will now run twice a week and another location will open in the Franklin Horner Community Centre in Etobicoke to reach more children.
The partnership also brings attention as well as volunteers to what Ms. Reid said is an under-served community.
"When a parent or an older sibling goes to prison, these children are faced with a myriad of challenges," she said. "It puts them in a state of disequilibrium and stress and so, if we don't support these children, they're more likely to cope in a maladaptive way."
Ms. Reid said her organization serves 300 families, arranging weekly trips in the group's 24-seater bus for children to visit loved ones in jail. She said the children need "positive role models and mentors to help them navigate through this challenge."
Both Shawnkayla and Jessy formed a bond with their Ryerson mentors.
"I trust her the most," Shawnkayla said of her mentor. "If I tell her stuff I'm not comfortable telling my parents … she wouldn't tell anyone else," she said.
Jessy, meanwhile, said his mentor, Andres Lapena, is his favourite of the Ryerson students. The two spent the program's third session together on a farm field trip, picking pumpkins and navigating through a corn maze.
"He's funny. He cheered me up," Jessy said.
For Mr. Lapena, a third-year criminal-justice student planning a career in law enforcement, the experience is like nothing he would have in a classroom.
"Criminal justice is very academic," he said. "We don't actually see in person what we're talking about and that creates this disconnect. Programs like this help bridge that gap."
It's not always easy – Mr. Lapena and the other Ryerson students were often given the cold shoulder by some of the older children – but he plans to return in the new year.
"Everyone acts out a bit, especially in this group, but it's worth it," he said.