PHILADELPHIA — Rebecca Smith will never forget the first time she stepped into a prison.
“The fences, barbed wire, and armed officers,” she said, “made for a pretty thought-provoking experience.”
A senior at La Salle University, the 2016 Columbus (Indiana) East High School graduate visited Graterford Prison last year, in Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections, as part of a business law and ethics course in which she was enrolled.
With classmates, she engaged in group discussions with death-row inmates. They talked about heavier, policy-focused topics like mass incarceration in the United States. They delved into personal questions, too, like asking whether the inmates would prefer that their families live in communities with better school districts or better air quality.
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“These inmates, men who are incarcerated for life, started talking about their families, how they hadn’t seen their children for five years,” Smith said. “It got me thinking about the children in this scenario. Do they know their fathers still think about them, care about them, and love them? That question got to me. We had left Graterford that day, but this was a deep thought that never left my mind.”
A double major in marketing and management and leadership, Smith returned home that day and, quite literally, put pen to paper. Colored pencils and crayons, too. The thesis in La Salle’s Honors program challenges students to complete an independent research project that explores their academic interests. For hers, Smith determined she would write and illustrate a children’s book that explains to children the dynamic of having a parent or guardian in prison.
She conducted interviews with women whose spouses had been imprisoned. She spoke to peers whose formative younger years overlapped with a prison sentence for one or both of their parents. She conducted market research into the availability of the child-facing resources she was looking to produce.
“There weren’t many children’s books on this topic,” said Smith, a native of Columbus, Indiana. “Books exist to help children cope with the loss of a family pet, but nothing touched on this topic.
At Columbus East, Smith competed in golf and swimming and was an honor roll student.
The book, “Does He Still Love Me?,” is the story of a fictional boy named Thomas, who enjoys playing baseball in the backyard with his father.
“One day, Thomas sees his mom crying because of what she hears on the phone,” Smith said. “The family dresses in suits, goes to court, and afterward, his daddy can’t come home because he must spend his time somewhere else. And it chronicles how Thomas’ life changes over the next several years, his frustration that no one is available to play with him, and even what happens when Thomas’ father returns to his life and the struggles that come along with that.”
“Rebecca’s appropriation of the course material, the personal price paid by the prisoner and those who love him, and the particular experience of a young child displays her insight and her sensitivity, and reflects the kind of intellectual and personal growth that takes place in the lives of La Salle’s Honors students,” said Brother Michael J. McGinniss, FSC, President Emeritus and director of the university’s Honors program.”
Smith, who will graduate from La Salle with a bachelor of arts in business administration, said her book will soon be available for online purchase at Amazon in a few weeks, through its self-publishing option.
She intends to donate all profits from book sales to Turning Point Domestic Violence Services in Columbus as a way of supporting families who are facing the possibility of a family member being incarcerated, particularly children facing that possibility. She hopes to bring print copies of the book to Turning Point in Columbus during spring break to have them available at the facility’s family shelter.
The book has a panel about Smith and the project on the book jacket.
While her degree will be in business administration, her future plans will take her in a slightly different direction — up in the air, she said.
After graduating from La Salle in May, she plans to attend an as-yet-to-be-determined flight school to study to become a commercial airline pilot. While there are lots of engineers and doctors in her family, Smith said she will be the first aviator.
And, as the book is published, she will become the family’s second author, following in the footsteps of an aunt who has also published children’s literature.
“The whole project was marked by the kind of Lasallian compassion and respect for humanity, especially those who are suffering, that betokens a deeply committed stance toward engaging with social problems for maximum positive impact,” said Vincent Kling, a professor of German and French in La Salle’s School of Arts and Sciences who oversaw all Honors projects in Spring 2019 — including Smith’s.
“To me,” Smith said, “the book serves as an aid for explaining to children the situation when a parent is in jail. I don”t see the book replacing the conversations that should take place. It’s my hope that the book meets a need for families, and helps normalize a difficult and life-changing situation for children.”