Cory Crosby spent much of his time in prison wondering how to explain to his children why he wasn't a part of their life.
But lacking the right words, he took the tools he had on hand, pens and paper and a love for illustration and writing, and used those to express what he could not over a prison phone line or during infrequent visits.
"I would draw them pictures, which then turned into books they could color and send back to me," Crosby said. "They were pictures of us doing different things, so they could hang them up and kind of uplift them and give them hope."
One day while reflecting on his own life and growing up in foster care, Crosby decided he did not want his own kids, or other children in similar situations, to experience the same feelings of neglect he did.
"I had opportunities to talk on the phone with my kids, and they were young at the time of my incarceration, but like every kid they had questions," Crosby said. "They would ask can you do this with me or can you do that. I just felt bad I wasn't able to do those things because of my situation."
The result was "When My Dad Comes Home," a children's book which combines the writings of Crosby and illustrations of Candice Malveaux to put into simple language several instances where a father might be absent for an extended period and how they and the children value time together when reunited.
The Boys and Girls Club of Columbia will host a book launch party for Crosby on Saturday. The event will feature games, music, food and speakers.
"It's really to touch on kids who are neglected, whether it's by bad decisions or just because of the necessity of having to work or be away," Crosby told the Columbia Daily Tribune of his book. "Wherever the neglect stems from, it causes emotional problems for kids."
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri serves more than 100 children each year who have one or more parents incarcerated. Executive Director Heather Dimitt-Fletcher said issues of abandonment are often compounded by the underlying crimes and the trauma of watching parents go through the criminal justice system.
"One of the things we know about childhood trauma is that it changes the structure of the brain," Dimitt-Fletcher said. "It's those changes that contribute to the long-term negative outcomes we see when children of prisoners become adults, including a greater likelihood of physical health problems such as cancer or heart disease, mental health concerns such as depression or substance abuse and or dependency concerns and especially of incarceration themselves as compared to their peers."
The organization aims to reduce the impact and promote positive outcomes by pairing those children with adult mentors, who work in a one-on-one setting. Staff participate in a variety of healing techniques designed to reduce stress, promote communication and problem solving, and offer positivity.
"Through our case managers, Big Brothers Big Sisters also assists custodial parents and or guardians in accessing other services in the community and by being a caring, listening source of support," Dimitt-Fletcher said. "Our goal is to have our Bigs and staff be an enhancement to help children and their families experiencing parent incarceration.
"We do not want to try to impede the relationship between the incarcerated parent and children as we know those parental bonds are crucial to healthy child development."
Kelly Hill is the director of Heart of Missouri Court Appointed Special Advocates, an organization that helps children in the state foster care system. She said about 15% of children the organization works with are there because parents are involved in criminal activity and it is often difficult for young people to understand why.
"A lot of times kids are the unseen people involved when their parents are dealing with criminal situations," Hill said. "We see stories in the news about drugs, violence, things like that, but we don't hear about their stories. And it is tough to explain to kids why their parents are not around or why they are in prison. That is a challenge."
Hill said she has not read Crosby's book yet, but it could be a valuable tool in helping children understand some of those issues.
"Anything that can communicate with the kids in their language and help them understand would be great," Hill said. "Even when we are honest with the kids, as much as we can be, about the reasons the parents aren't there, it's still hard to explain. A kid's book with the visuals and the language, I think that could be a great tool."
Crosby went to prison in March 2008 at the age of 21. He was sentenced to 10 years on a count of first-degree robbery. He was released after more than eight years and like many former inmates returning to society found he had a hard road ahead and was refused work many times.
"When I got out, I didn't have any family, I had $100 to my name," Crosby said. "I had a need to create some income, but when I applied for a job they didn't care how much I changed or how long ago the offense was."
During his incarceration he studied every book related to business and finance he could get his hands on with the goal of becoming a successful entrepreneur. While incarcerated, Crosby went from being overweight to one of the most fit inmates on the yard. Armed with that knowledge and lifestyle change when he was released, he started a gym, 2 Real Fitness, which combined physical fitness and mentoring.
"I studied business through my entire incarceration and read every book and had a good understanding of what I would do," he said. "I also started working out and got to where I was known as the top fit inmate and still have a legacy in that field in most prisons in Missouri. Through that I had the opportunity to create my first business."
Crosby said his real passion, however, is mentoring others. He plans in the weeks and months ahead to focus on a program to teach others how to develop business skills and overcome some of the barriers he faced. He's also planning another book to help inmates returning to the streets overcome some of the obstacles he faced.
"Even to this day having a felony will always follow, but for me it's an opportunity to show others it doesn't have to dictate where you go," Crosby said.
Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, http://www.columbiatribune.com
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