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Program helps imprisoned parents stay connected to kids

April 19, 2012 -- Updated 2008 GMT (0408 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Program keeps kids connected with their parents in prison
  • CNN Hero Carolyn LeCroy has run the program for the last decade
  • Actress Holly Robinson Peete recently joins LeCroy to observe the program

(CNN) -- For the last decade, Carolyn LeCroy has been helping children stay connected to their incarcerated parents through video messages.

LeCroy was honored as a CNN Hero in 2008, and has since expanded her Messages Project to prisons in five states.

Her story inspired actress Holly Robinson Peete, who recently joined LeCroy on a visit to a maximum security prison.

CNN's Anderson Cooper spoke with Peete about her experience.

Anderson Cooper: What was it about Carolyn's efforts that first sparked your interest?

Holly Robinson Peete: I learned about a subset of the population that I never thought of before, which are the children of incarcerated parents.

There was something about how hard of a sell it is; anytime you are talking about inmates or people in prison, people automatically -- there's some pushback. But with Carolyn's brand of philanthropy, I just found myself intrigued, and I had to help her out.

Read the 2008 story: Ex-con's videos keep inmates, kids in touch

Actress Holly Robinson Peete visits a prison with Carolyn LeCroy to see Messages Project in action.
Actress Holly Robinson Peete visits a prison with Carolyn LeCroy to see Messages Project in action.

Cooper: How does the Messages Project work?

Peete: The Messages Project goes into prisons across the country and films messages of incarcerated parents who are either reading a book, a bedtime story, giving a very positive message, giving love to the caregiver watching these children.

Something so simple you would think wouldn't be a big deal, but to a child who's lost their parent to incarceration, they watch these videos over and over again. It has a really positive effect on them. So many times, a lot of these children end up in prisons themselves, and this is something that might be able to stop that chain.

I think about watching my father's video. My father's been deceased for many years. When he was at my wedding, he just said, "I love you." I watch it over and over and over again, and it just lifts me up. To these children, these are not hardened criminals. Oftentimes they are just looked at as Mommy or Daddy. So, it's very important that the children know it's not their fault and that they know they're loved.

More: CNN Heroes

Cooper: How did you get involved with the program?

Peete: I met Carolyn in 2008 and we've been trying to get together. ... The Messages Project is now in Oklahoma, in Nebraska, in Virginia.

And we kept talking about California. It's the most incarcerated state in the country. And that's where I live. So I said, "We've got to get in there." And we finally made it in. It ... was a lot of pressure; I wanted it to go well.

Cooper: What did that day involve?

Peete: It involved me driving for hours and hours and hours to the middle of the desert, to the middle of nowhere California. ... It involved meeting five inmates who, most of them, may never come out of that prison. And they really didn't strike me as people who had done anything except that they were dads in that moment and they wanted to get messages to their children.

Cooper: What's it like seeing someone who is incarcerated and you know why they are there, and yet you see them in kind of a different light when they are trying to get a message to their child?

Peete: Apparently these are hardened criminals, people who are doing time for very, very serious offenses, often murder and armed robbery. I personally didn't want to know until I left what they did. I just wanted to appeal to them as a mom and as a parent.

I think we don't think about the impact of what the children of incarcerated parents have to go through. Sometimes their parents are just yanked, right in front of their eyes in some very difficult situations with policemen and guns. So, it's a mind-boggling situation for children, and these tiny messages are so impactful.

Cooper: It's an incredibly intimate act, the making of these videos.

Peete: Even being there and watching some of these men, I was moved to tears because I saw how gut-wrenching it was for them to say, "I'm sorry. This is not your fault. Daddy loves you and I just want you to be the best person you can be." Those little anecdotal things sound very cliché. We take it for granted if we've got a parent in the home, but hearing that for a child can make all the difference in the world.

I felt like I was doing something not necessarily for the inmates, but for their children. I was impacted by it for the rest of the day, and still am.

Cooper: You were recognized by a couple of the prisoners. What was that like?

Peete: We walked into the cell block, and ... two gentlemen that came out looked at me. One of them said, "Hey, Holly. What's going on? Remember you met me in Vancouver, and it was 1980. You were shooting '21 Jump Street.'" He said, "I've been trying to get a script to your agent." ... (laughs) Even in jail somebody has a script for you, Anderson. ...

I was just very blown away at his resourcefulness, because sure enough, three days later my agent said, "Did you meet a screenwriter in jail?"

Cooper: What is it about the CNN Heroes project that really caught your interest?

Peete: I'm a CNN Heroes groupie. ... The Heroes just use whatever it is that is at their disposal, and I'm always blown away by what they are able to accomplish with so little. And for no other reason than it is their calling, it is something they are drawn to.

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