Children of Prisoners: Dance Camp

“When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.” – Walt Disney

I, like many of Netflix’s 30 million registered subscribers, watched “Orange is the New Black.” The comedy-drama series produced by Jenji Kohan and based on the real-life experience of Piper Kerman immediately grabbed my attention. The psychology of figuring out how to survive in jail, the friendships and the women’s stories of struggle, loss and patience revealed an entirely different person than the one the jail had incarcerated.

I quickly finished the first season, and I was hungry for more. I purchased the book written by Piper Kerman, and it was in the book that I latched onto something: These women were watching their children grow up from afar. They witnessed their children’s lives through photographs, stories, phone calls and letters but they couldn’t do much as far as providing for these children. It seemed their most pressing involvement in their children’s lives was their consistent absence. So I wondered….

What do these children do to work through the heavy hearts they feel of not having their mothers?

In the back of Piper Kerman’s book, she lists resources of ways to become involved. I looked for all of the ones that included children. I visited their websites and I read about their services. I finally came across one that listed services for children of prisoners by state. I scrolled down to locate my state and there I found a name and an e-mail.

Without hesitation, I wrote to that mystery name. I introduced myself and said, “I have an idea!”

I believe, implicitly and unquestionably, in dance’s ability to refresh hurting hearts, to spark curiosity in minds, to wake up a tired body and to motivate an exasperated soul. I explained, with probably too much passion, how I thought a dance camp for children of prisoners would be healthy, inspiring and helpful in countless ways. I wrote, “Thank you for your time and consideration,” typed in my signature, attached a resume and hit send. I didn’t know what would happen. I figured that national listing of state resources hadn’t been updated in years, and I didn’t know if the mystery person still worked there. I half expected the server to immediately bounce my e-mail back.

A few hours later, I received an e-mail back from the mystery person with a phone number. “We’re interested! Call me!”

Within minutes, a meeting was set up and I was sitting in front of my laptop putting together a proposal.


At the first meeting, I fell in love with the woman who runs the program for Children of Prisoners. Her passion for what she does was immediately apparent, as she took me around a tour of the 24-hour shelter. Two teenage girls were braiding each others’ hair and waved to me as I walked by.  The shelter takes in children who have run away, been removed from their home, or are facing a crisis. They work for reconciliation of families through counseling, communication training and offering hope, love and a neutral ground.

I knew 5 minutes into the tour that I wanted to do this program.

I had set out a simple plan during my proposal presentation:

  • 10 weeks of classes in different dance techniques: Ballet, Jazz, Hip-hop, Musical Theater, Ballroom
  • Volunteer teachers & donated studio space meant zero cost to the shelter or the children’s families
  • We will work towards presenting a showcase of dances
  • The showcase will be filmed and put on a DVD for the children to share with their families and friends

I didn’t know yet if I would be able to pin down any of this, but I presented it as if it wasn’t a problem. I listened to her explain their needs and the needs of the children, and I had no doubt in my mind that dance could take on such a huge responsibility.

I started planning.


I used social media to help me find teachers willing to donate their time. I called studios looking for someone who would donate their studio space. I tweeted Piper Kerman to thank her for inspiring me to put all of this into action.

And then Piper Kerman e-mailed me.

She loved this project and wanted to hear more about it. She thanked me for getting involved. I was so giddy, I did a happy dance in the middle of a line at Starbucks.

The momentum was exhilarating. I was receiving e-mails from teachers who live in different states willing to donate their time. I found a studio right down the street from the shelter willing to donate space. I organized people willing to send inspirational and motivational cards to the students involved. We opened the camp up the local youth and any legal guardian, parent or sibling who wanted to be involved. The project grew naturally and substantially.


On the first day of Dance Camp, I saw amazing work happen. It was me and one other teacher, a little girl, a teenage boy and his sister, two mentors and an intern from the shelter. With the door open, letting in the fall breeze, we danced.

The little girl refused to dance at first. She stayed close by her mentor, peeking out at the dancing. I kept waving to her, sending her smiles. Eventually, inch by inch, she came over and stood right next to me. By the end of the class, she was dancing her little heart out and using the French terminology of ballet. When we were doing plies at the barre, she would stand so close to me that her little hand rested ever so lightly on top of my hand.

On a quick water break, the teenage boy told me he had always dreamed of dancing like Michael Jackson. He has a natural movement ability but had never been able to take a structured dance class. I quietly slipped over to my iPod and changed the song to a Michael Jackson song. When I hit play, he jumped up and said, “This is my song!” He looked so happy, as if he wanted to cry but there was too much joy.

At the end of class, we talked about what we had learned and I passed out brand-new fancy pencils with designs on them (which I purchased from the $1 bins at Target). The children rolled the pencils around, examining each intricate design on the pencil, treasuring their gift.

“These are for you to take to school and work hard! They are also for you to write down your dance notes from today and write down any dreams and hopes you have.”

They smiled.

I waved goodbye to all of them, and one of their mentors came up to me and said, “I haven’t seen a smile that big on that little face in a long time.”

As I turned off the lights and locked up the dance studio, I felt nothing but love. Dance had worked its power, again.

If  you are interested in helping:

  • Purchase goodies for the children or send TAX DEDUCTIBLE funds to Seton Youth Shelters! Link:
  • Send a card of inspiration to a child (e-mail for more information)


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6 responses to “Children of Prisoners: Dance Camp”

  1. Fred Skaggs says:

    Sheena, you have inspired me again as you have done so often. This is a marvelous piece to tell the story and a very touching ministry that you’re doing. I hope many of us pay attention to it.

    • Nancy Hat says:

      Hi Sheena, I was the mentor with the 2 teenagers at your class Saturday. I knew Breon would be into the hip hop/jazz but didn’t think he would be so thrilled with the ballet, but he took to that too! Diamond was hesitant at first, but I think the ballet will be ‘her thing’. Their schedules can be a little flakey at times, but I’m going to be available to take them every Saturday, and I think they have finally found something to be part of. please let me know if you need help fundraising or anything else for the showcase and to pay for the filming of the DVD. I’ve done a little fundraising and event organizing in the past and would love to help.

      Nancy Hart
      757 498 4349

  2. What a wonderful partnership on behalf of the many children of prisoners and children affected by incarceration who are mentored through Seton Youth Shelters’ Mentoring Children of Prisoners Program.
    Thank you Sheena!!! This is an exciting experience which will truly inspire our youth.

  3. Cindy Rowe says:

    This is such a touching and inspiring article. You are truly amazing Sheena.

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