Canyon Freedom

Dallas group hosts a special Foundation Camp for children of incarcerated mothers.

In June, Windsong hosted a different kind of family camp. Brittany Barnett-Byrd brought twenty-two girls, ages 10 through 17, and four moms. The other moms couldn’t come because they are in prison.

Barnett-Byrd is the founder of GEM, Girls Embracing Mothers, a ministry in Dallas that has helped girls of incarcerated mothers since 2013. “When one person goes to prison, the entire family goes to prison,” Brittany Barnett-Byrd writes on her website. She is also a lawyer and criminal justice advocate—seven of her clients have received presidential pardons.

And she understands the girls she serves because she is one of them.

“I started this program because my mom went to prison,” said Barnett-Byrd. “I was 21 years old, and I know how much that affected me even as a young adult.”

The most important thing Barnett-Byrd and the younger girls in GEM have in common? “We all love our mommas,” she said. “They aren’t bad people, but they made some bad choices.”

At Windsong, GEM brought its girls together for four days in a camp environment where they could be around other girls who were going through the same struggles. The camp curriculum focused on building self-esteem by reminding each girl that their lives are not defined by their moms’ worst mistakes.

Camp is a new part of GEM. Throughout the year, the program primarily helps the children visit their moms in jail. The girls meet at 8:00 am in a church parking lot on the first Saturday of each month, board a bus together, and ride two hours to the Linda Woodman State Jail in Gatesville, Texas, where the girls and their moms have an extended four-hour visitation, including a meal.

“This is something people take for granted, just how special it is to have a meal with your mom.”

Brittany Barnett-Byrd

The extended visitation is made possible by their partnership with the prison. “They believe in the power of connection,” Barnett-Byrd explained. She also cited sociological studies that have found contact between incarcerated parents and their children is good for the child and also good for the parent.

Although only four mothers had been released from prison, their presence was important for all of the GEM campers. “It felt great to see those moms that had been released,” said Barnett-Byrd. “They got to experience camp for the first time with their daughters—and to give back. They were there as volunteers, and they were a huge help with camp overall.”

They weren’t the only volunteers. Barnett-Byrd’s mother was a volunteer, too. She has been out of prison for ten years now, but they still remember those two-and-a-half years of her prison sentence as the hardest of their lives.

Barnett-Byrd focuses on the positive outcome, though. Reflecting on her mother’s years in prison, she said, “If she had never gone to prison, I would never have started GEM.”

During the talent show on their last night in Windsong, Barnett-Byrd said her mom stood off to the side, crying as she watched the girls perform. “She was living in the moment,” she said, “and she was so grateful that she could make it through and come to camp and help these girls. She was in tears, and they were happy tears.”

Girls Embracing Mothers has already reserved Foundation Camp dates for next June.

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