(KPTV) - There was a big celebration in Portland Thursday to mark the 20th anniversary of a unique Girl Scouts program.
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars is specifically designed for girls who have mothers or grandmothers in prison.
Sisters have a special bond and that’s especially true for Crystal Mourlas-Juan and her little sis, Kasea. They work together at Dave’s Killer Bread in Milwaukie, sharing their laughs and their lives.
But that wasn't always the case. At a young age, Crystal was an inmate.
“I ended up in prison at 19, so we didn't have a relationship, we didn't really know each other,” she said.
It was a dark time in her life, one she doesn’t like to talk much about.
She left home at 13, got into drugs and committed three felonies. She was sentenced to seven and a half years.
At the time, her little sister was only 13.
“I didn’t want her to go down the same path I went down,” Crystal said.
That’s when she heard about a program that would change her life.
It’s called Girl Scouts Beyond Bars and it’s a troop just for girls who have a mother figure in prison.
Through the program, Kasea was brought to the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility every other Saturday. It was time where they could bond, connect and learn to grow together.
“It wasn't like regular visiting, it was a time where we could hug longer, we could hug numerous times, we got to hold hands, we got to braid each other's hair, do crafts together, learn songs and even have lunch together and that's something you don't get with regular visiting,” Crystal said.
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Program Manager Amy Botula said, “It’s a really poignant moment that we don’t want to interfere with. We’ll see a girl as old as 13 desperately want to sit in her mother’s lap and have that connection.”
Botula is in charge of the program for the Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington.
It serves girls from kindergarten through high school while their incarcerated mothers or grandmothers train to be troop leaders.
The Girl Scouts organize the transportation to Coffee Creek and the troop meets in the prison cafeteria or visiting room.
It’s a regular Girl Scouts meeting twice a month, teaching leadership and community but from inside the walls of Coffee Creek.
“I just see joy in their faces when they talk about it, when they ask for the applications,” said Brittany Roach, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility life skills and volunteer coordinator. “Girl Scouts gives them an opportunity to interact in a difficult place and make it empowering.”
Research shows that children of incarcerated parents are at greater risk themselves of ending up in the criminal justice system, but studies from the Girl Scouts Research Institute show that the “beyond bars” program makes a big difference in turning the tide.
More than 75 percent of the girls who take part not only have stronger relationships with their mothers and grandmothers, but they also have better school performance, make healthier choices and are more engaged in their communities.
They are changes that can last a lifetime.
“We're really changing the narrative that the girls see themselves as something more than someone who has a parent or grandparent that's incarcerated, and the women see themselves as something more than a person who made a mistake that led to them being incarcerated,” Botula said.
For Crystal and Kasea, that’s absolutely true.
“That’s a blessing in itself to say that I work with my sister and our bond is partly due to Girl Scouts. It gave us that time together that we wouldn’t have had,” said Crystal.
They credit their time in Girl Scouts Beyond Bars with shaping who they are today: successful, strong women who aren’t held down by the past and have a future to look forward to.
“Being able to keep those bonds between mothers and daughters and sisters and grandkids, it’s important,” Crystal said. “It gives you a reason to keep going.”
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum was instrumental in bringing the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program to our area in 1997.
It’s a rarity in the Girl Scouts world – only about 10 percent of the councils across the country offer it.
Here in the Portland area, it's entirely funded by private donations and serves up to 70 girls every year.
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