Last week we shared the story of Coley Harris, a previously incarcerated father dedicated to helping youth in his hometown of Wilmington, DE to develop meaning and direction in their lives. But what about Coley's son?
For 14 years, Ahmarr Melton knew that something wasn't quite right. Ahmarr grew up with his dad in prison until he was 16 years old. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common reality for many of our nation's children. Over 1.1 million incarcerated individuals are fathers of children between the ages of 0-17, and the number of children with an incarcerated father has risen 79% since 1991.
But the silver lining is that a father's absence (or in this case, incarceration) doesn't have to end badly for all involved. With commitment and determination, a father-son relationship can come out of the ashes, and become a seed that finds life.
We pick up this week with Ahmarr sharing what it was like to be without his dad.
"A lot of men don’t know the feeling of navigating through the early stages of life without a father. Most kids go to bed with a sense of comfort and protection…your dad is your first coach, role model, protector, provider. But what do you do when your dad sells drugs? Or when you realize that your father won’t be around for awhile and there’s nothing you can do about it?"
In 1994, Coley Harris plead guilty for second-degree murder and concealing a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison. His son Ahmarr was just 2 years old.
Fortunately for Ahmarr, he was able to live with his mother and grandparents during his father's incarceration. They loved him, and did everything they could to keep him comfortable and keep his thoughts away from the fact that his father was incarcerated. His grandfather did his best to ensure Ahmarr's life was what he thought a young man's life should be like.
"The missing piece was my Dad."
But as he got older, Ahmarr started to realize more and more the importance of having a father in his life. Ahmarr longed for someone who understood the world he was growing up in, and to guide him on the path to becoming a man.
At age 9, Ahmarr and his mom moved away from his grandparents, and things changed for him. His younger sister had her father in her life, and he started becoming aware of how important it was to have a father in your life. His sister would go visit her dad on the weekends and Ahmarr would go visit his grandparents. When he'd come home on Sunday, it always seemed like his sister had done something "fun" with her father, while he was with his grandparents just "going through the motions".
Ahmarr recalls, "Looking back, she probably wasn't doing anything too extravagant, but it always stuck out in my mind that she had a dad to go see and I didn't. The missing piece was my dad."
Ahmarr visited his father in prison once every few months, but doesn't remember much about their early conversations. Mostly he recalls that his dad was more curious about him than he was about his dad. Ahmarr felt that he didn't know his dad, and didn't know how to process the situation until he was older.
"I felt honored to have this guy as a dad."
Ahmarr's mother was very supportive during Coley's incarceration. She understood Ahmarr's situation more than he did, and did her best to shelter him from it. "She knew the demons my father carried with him and never mentioned them. My mom painted him to me as almost a hero. I know most kids see their dad as a hero, but I mean, the way she and others portrayed him, I felt honored to have this guy as a dad", says Ahmarr.
Ahmarr's mom stayed supportive by remaining either neutral or super positive when his dad came up in conversation. Although they didn't talk about him much, Ahmarr remembers the "cool feeling" he would get whenever his dad was referenced.
"It was tough visiting my father in prison", Ahmarr continues. "I didn't like going to visit him there because it would cut into my Saturday routine (cartoons, playing outside, etc). The ride always seemed long, and once we got there we'd have to empty our pockets and go through metal detectors. Once inside we would sit and wait. He was never the first one out the door, so I would see other people hug and kiss their loved ones. I'd sit anxiously wondering when my dad would come out and if I would recognize him. I did always recognized him, even though it seemed like I was meeting a new person every visit."
His father always initiated contact.
Ahmarr's father would call on Thursdays while Ahmarr was at boy scouts. His grandmother would intercept the call and talk to him, then she'd give Ahmarr the message when he got home. Ahmarr recalls, "My Nanno [grandmother] would often tell me about the day I was born, and how happy my dad was to see me. It's her favorite story because she had to drive into the projects where my dad hung out to try to find him. She was scared to do it, so to her, that was an adventure".
His father always initiated contact. It was encouraging to Ahmarr that his dad wrote him a ton of letters from prison (most of which he still has), although Ahmarr only wrote back less than a handful of times. He didn't know what to say and was at a point in his life where he didn't like writing. Ahmarr says now, "...if I had understood that letters would have been the best way of communicating with my pop, I would've written him more. As I got older, I visited less but started having more questions."
"... you CAN have an amazing relationship
that you wouldn't want to live without."
Today, Coley and Ahmarr spend time getting to know one another. 14 years apart hasn't stopped them from putting in the effort it takes to get to know someone, and find common ground.
Ahmarr says that the most important thing his dad did to show that he wanted a relationship with him when he was released was simply spending time with him and talking to him. He felt like a celebrity had come to town [his dad], and only wanted to talk to him and know about him. "He always told me he loved me and how sorry he was about the poor decisions he had made."
Ahmarr encourages children with incarcerated fathers to open up the lines of communication and just talk to their dad (or even write letters when they can). "Try to find common ground and go from there. The tough stuff has to be discussed but it doesn't always have to be right away. Understanding each other and having a level of comfort is the key. Everything can come into place after that."
"It's easy to play the blame game and harvest ill feelings", concludes Ahmarr, "but I know from experience that if you remain open and accepting of the other person, you CAN have an amazing relationship that you wouldn't want to live without."
Learn more about Coley & Ahmarr's story by watching the Out Of The Ashes: Where a Seed Finds Life trailer here on FatherSource®.