Project Avary

Project Avary


I don’t think this is rocket science. When Danny (Rifkin) and friends created Avary, they did so out of love for children, and if kids know that someone cares for them, they will usually turn out OK.

– Herb Castillo


By Mary Eisenhart

When a parent goes to prison, statistics show their kids have drastically increased odds of heading down the same path. Project Avary takes an intensive approach to breaking that cycle.

kids crossing creek

Back in the mid-’90s, Danny Rifkin, a longtime Grateful Dead family member and then the Rex Foundation’s executive director, was looking for a new challenge. “It was about a year after Jerry died,” he recalls, “and I was asking friends of mine whom I held in high regard for ideas for what I might next do in life.”

One of the friends he talked with was Earl Smith, who served as a chaplain at San Quentin prison. Smith told him that while there were some community-based organizations that helped former prisoners re-enter the community, and a few agencies to help families while loved ones were incarcerated, there were next to no resources specifically devoted to helping the children of incarcerated parents cope with the myriad issues that come with having a parent in prison.

The results, Smith said, were there for all to see, with sons following fathers following grandfathers into the prison system. But he had an idea of what might break the cycle – and who might want to do it.

Danny Rifkin

Rifkin recalls, “When Earl brought up the fact that there were no programs for children with incarcerated parents and that what would be good would be a summer camp and follow-up program, a light bulb went off in my mind. I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and with my previous experiences at Slide Ranch and Camp Winnarainbow, I had the experience and potential staff resources necessary to get the project going.

I was, at the time, the administrator of the Rex Foundation, so I wrote a letter to the board asking them if I could use Rex as an umbrella organization until we could establish our own non-profit status and whether Rex would supply a $10,000 start-up grant. The response to both requests was positive. In addition, Caryl, Mickey Hart’s wife, happened to see my letter and offered an additional grant of $10,000 from her family’s foundation, the Ohrbach Foundation. This was very validating for me, and I knew I was onto the next right thing.”

Launched in 1999, Project Avary (Alternative Ventures for At Risk Youth) began with Rifkin and a group of friends taking 32 kids to a week of camp in the Sierras. By the next year it had grown to three weeks, with a fourth added in 2004. But Avary’s work extended beyond just taking at-risk kids to camp – monthly Avary Adventure Days take kids on field trips throughout the Bay Area, there’s a Family Camp once a year, and twice-yearly celebrations gather the whole Avary community. There are leadership retreats and a mentor program to help older youth in the program work with the younger kids.

Underlying all of Avary’s work is offering “The Avary Way” as an alternative family structure and way of life to kids whose regular lives often lack both stability and positive influence. “The Avary Way” emphasizes five areas (see sidebar): Social skills in daily life, creative arts, environmental education, physical activity and nutrition, and life skills. Along the way there are rituals, gatherings and celebrations to honor the kids and their progress.

Avary is a small, resource-intensive (for example, at camp there’s one counselor for every two kids) effort serving the San Francisco Bay Area – but it offers a clear demonstration that what it’s doing works. Remarkably, of approximately 300 kids who have attended Avary camp since 1999, 159 remain involved today.

Since that first startup grant in 1999, Rex has continued to support Avary with subsequent grants in 2002, 2004 and 2006, as Avary itself has continued to evolve. Says Herb Castillo, who became Avary’s executive director last year when Rifkin retired, “In 2004 there was a surge in teen involvement. Rex funding over the following two years was instrumental in helping Avary expand the Teen Leadership program’s capacity to accommodate the large number of children choosing to commit their teen years to Avary. Today, nearly 60 of the over 150 children and youth participating in Avary are teenagers.”

We recently had a chance to speak with Castillo about Avary’s work, the difficulties, and the rewards.

Herb Castillo

Rex Foundation: What are the particular challenges kids with incarcerated parents face? Who are these kids – where do they live, what are their families like?

Herb Castillo, Project Avary: The families we serve are typically “multi-problem families” who face a range of interrelated challenges, including poverty, lack of a stable home environment, lack of educational resources, and physical and mental health issues.

Research tells us that children of incarcerated parents experience trauma affecting their emotional and even physical development. Their ability to trust is undermined. Other problems include anxiety, asocial behavior, and inability to focus or concentrate.

Also, the constant contact children have, through their parent or parents, with the criminal justice system can socialize a child, such that their life chances of incarceration can be as much as five times more than other children’s.

There are an estimated 170,000 to 200,000 children of incarcerated parents living in the Bay Area. Obviously we are only serving a fraction, but across a wide geographic area. The kids Avary serves live in eight Bay Area counties and in 39 cities.

Nearly 60% of Avary kids live with the remaining parent and another 20% with a relative, usually a grandmom. Most of our kids are low-income, live in tough neighborhoods where even a walk to the school is filled with risk, and usually suffer from inadequate health care and under-resourced schools.

Rex: What’s the process for deciding which kids get to enter the program?

Project Avary: Summer camp is the primary entry point for a new child to join Avary. The child must be between 8.5 and 11 and usually comes to our attention through a teacher or social worker. Thereafter we strive to work with a child into young adulthood and base decisions around advancing into the Teen program on a child’s ability to thrive in our program.

We interview the parents and the referring party to determine a child’s maturity and readiness to attend camp, as well as fit into a community. Many of our kids have suffered emotional and physical abuse (in some instances even sexual abuse) and neglect. We want to be aware of potential problems, but do not screen out kids because they have problems. We see with our teens, many of whom have been with Avary for five, six or seven years, that with the right support and the right set of expectations, kids can prosper and dream and act on those dreams, in spite of the hurdles placed before them in the early years.


Rex: You’ve mentioned that teens are your fastest-growing constituency. To what extent is this the result of kids starting the program at an earlier age and sticking around? And was this part of the plan from the beginning, or an unexpected evolution?

Project Avary: Avary accepts only children between ages 8.5 and 11. Their commitment to remain involved in our program begins to form with their first summer camp, when they are introduced to our values and practices.

They are told that during the first two years of their involvement with Avary, they will be held to one-week sessions at summer camp; that if they wish to graduate to two-week status and ultimately enter the Teen Leadership program, they must show that they are meeting the objectives under our Personal Responsibility goal. When they reach 13 and 14, they are considered for entry to the Teen program.

However, while in the program, they demonstrate progress in achieving Community Responsibility objectives. In short, we present to our kids values and goals; we support them in achieving those goals; and, as you can see, many strive to meet these expectations.

Was this part of the plan? Yes and no. Yes, because we saw early on a number of the older kids stay with the program. No, because I don’t think Danny or anyone else was prepared for the number of kids who would ultimately stay with Avary into their teens.

Rex: Avary’s long-term, family-like commitment to the kids who enter the program is very striking. Could you elaborate on how that works, and why it’s important?

Project Avary: What impressed me most when I joined Avary was the constant reference to “the Avary Way.” The Avary Way is based on values and practices that promote healthy lifestyles and appropriate youth development.

When children attend their first summer camp, they learn that Avary focuses on five areas of development: social skills for daily life; creative arts; environmental education; nutrition and physical fitness; and life skills training.

For children to advance through our program – which means graduation from one week to two weeks, entry to the Teen Leadership Program, and graduation to senior staff – they must demonstrate progress in each of these areas.

Surrounding these expectations is a sense of family, which for us means showing our appreciation and committing our support for one another. We take this mutual responsibility seriously.

Rex: Also striking is the fact that Avary has its own rituals, rites of passage and so on. Again, could you talk about how that works, and why it’s important?

Project Avary: We think that rituals, ceremonies, and rites of passage should be used to signal major stages and achievements in our lives. When we mark a child’s advancement with ceremony, we intentionally engage all members of our community in that process. Children and young adults feel honored by the Avary community and, importantly, responsible or beholden to their community.

This is key: the sense of mutual responsibility towards one another. Isn’t this what we mean with all the talk of a civil society? It is more than being respectful; it also means being supportive and available to cheer or help when needed.

Rex: Obviously, for reasons ranging from financial to geographic, Avary can’t help every child of incarcerated parents. Does it have ripple effects with kids and families outside the program? Could the model be adapted elsewhere?

Project Avary: Avary is a very unique organization. We have blended enrichment, mentoring and counseling, environmental stewardship, professional training, and leadership development into an integrated array of activities that promote positive and healthy youth lifestyles.

We see firsthand the positive effects of Avary when our kids commit to Avary in their teen years; when siblings and relatives of one Avary child seek to enter our program; when our older kids enter college or survive multiple foster care placements to live stable and productive lives. I don’t think this is rocket science. When Danny and friends created Avary, they did so out of love for children, and if kids know that someone cares for them, they will usually turn out OK.

Rex: The kids who started in 1999 would be approaching adulthood now. What’s become of them?

Project Avary: I can only comment on the kids who remain involved with us.

The two oldest are on full scholarship at San Diego State University. The next oldest is in community college and living independently. She is a former foster care child, which makes her current circumstances especially laudable.

Next is a young woman we have integrated into our senior summer staff who will be attending San Francisco Community College in the fall and whose tuition at SF State, where she will continue after finishing with the JC, will be covered by the company with whom she is currently employed.

Rex: One of your recent developments is a mentoring program. How does that work, and do you need more mentors? If so, what qualities are you looking for?

Project Avary: Actually, we launched the mentoring program three years ago with the aid of a federal grant. Those funds have ended, and while we will continue to support the mentoring relationships that are currently active, we intend to focus our energy on developing a mentoring program from within.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the children we recruit into the program are choosing to grow up with us. We hope they will become our leaders of the future and have been accelerating their professional development with training and formal job responsibilities.

In the same vein, we intend to develop a buddy system where our older teens are matched to our younger participants for the purpose of providing guidance and support. We think this is more in line with the sense of family that has developed at Avary.

Rex: By your own calculations, you’re serving maybe 1/1000th of the Bay Area kids in this situation. How, if at all, could the Avary model be expanded to serve these other kids without losing quality of service? What issues are involved?

Project Avary: That’s a good question, and I’m not sure it would be possible – to maintain the same quality of service, I mean. We could expand, bring in more kids, but I’m not sure we would be able to maintain the same feeling of family and community.

In fact, I’m looking at ways to deepen and intensify our familiarity and relationships with the current kids in the program, but that would involve seeing our kids more even more often than we do now.

Rex: Avary seems to be very much about quality rather than quantity. Unlike a lot of weeklong programs that essentially have no contact with kids for the rest of the year, Avary sees the bonds formed at camp as essential and puts a lot of energy into fostering them. Which, in turn, entails a huge commitment of time and energy from not only the kids themselves (and their families), but the staff and volunteers. How do you sustain this energy?

Project Avary: First and foremost, once you become acquainted with the challenges confronting these kids and witness their desire and effort to overcome those challenges, any claim at emotional or physical fatigue is pretty silly.

While I’d been with Avary for nearly a year, I hadn’t attended summer camp until this summer, and I was absolutely unprepared for the profound emotional impact it would have on me. If I didn’t think so before camp – and I’m sure I’m speaking for many of the summer camp staff – I am particularly resolved, especially after having experienced camp, not to let down these kids regardless of the effort or work required of me.

We call ourselves the Avary family and the Avary community. I believe that referring to and thinking of ourselves as family and community fundamentally determines how we act in relationship to our kids.

Also, when I interviewed for this position with Danny, he talked about how some day we’d be able to select an executive director from the ranks of former campers. So OK, that’s how I’ve approached this job from the beginning, that our training, expectations, services, and care we provide our kids meet our mission of crafting a safe place where kids will realize their potential.

Why? First, this is the only way that kids with a heightened likelihood of experiencing incarceration sometime in their lives will develop the vision, confidence, and skills to avoid following in the footsteps of their parents. And second, this agency belongs to them – and if this Avary belongs to them, they need the skills and tools to manage it.



Tools and Skills for Life

Avary’s five focus areas provide the skills and tools children need to develop their emotional intelligence and express themselves successfully in the Avary community and in their lives.

1. Social Skills in Daily Life: All program activities emphasize cooperation, tolerance of diverse viewpoints, conflict resolution, and communication skills. Avary’s approach is child-centered rather than curriculum-centered. Counselors are trained to exploit “teachable moments”: When conflicts or meltdowns occur, they are mediated immediately – within the group or in focused conversation between the counselor(s) and the child or children involved. The conflict resolution skills they learn at camp are tools they can take back to their school playgrounds.

2. Creative Arts: Training in the arts offers a variety of benefits, including opportunities for reflection, self-expression, and communication, comfort with speaking and performing in public, and opportunities to discover and explore talents. Campers get a respite from television and other mass media and learn crafts, graphic arts, music, dance, improvisational acting, and storytelling. In past years, they have collaborated to write and perform skits and work on a community mural that celebrates multicultural awareness.

Children are supplied with two journals – one that Avary keeps for them to use for Adventure Day art lessons and reflection time; another in which they can collect friends’ signatures and their private writings and drawings.

3. Environmental Education: Many of these girls and boys have little opportunity to spend time out of doors. Lessons and experiences are designed to help them feel comfortable in nature, appreciate its essential importance, and develop a sense of their own role as stewards. Nature walks, storytelling, mini-science lessons, “eco-treasure hunts,” and an “Interdependence Day” celebration teach the children about the plant and animal life native to various local eco-systems.

4. Physical Activity and Nutrition: Avary participants are among the millions of American children affected by the epidemic of “diseases of lifestyle”- obesity, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise. As participants in our programs, they are introduced to good eating habits and a wide variety of sports and physical activities – from indoor rock climbing and ice-skating to deep-water swimming lessons and aikido classes to traditional sports such as volleyball, soccer, and basketball. Cooperation, teamwork, and fitness are emphasized over competition.

Children sit down every day to three family-style meals preceded by group appreciations, singing, and community announcements. Kitchen staff use fresh wholesome ingredients and only minimally processed foods, and do not use refined sugar. Each of the main meals and two daily snacks includes fresh fruits and vegetables. Candy and junk food are not served.

5. Life Skills: Children learn practical skills they can use to serve themselves, the Avary community, and the community at large. The program has included classes in gardening, First Aid & CPR and cooking. At camp, children are responsible for cleaning up their cabins and are assigned to do chores in common areas, and help with meal preparation and cleanup.

-Project Avary

Xavier Meets His Mentor
From the Project Avary newsletter

Pete Sears and Xavier at Project Avary fundraiser

Pete Sears and Xavier rock a Project Avary fundraiser. Photo: Susana Millman

“One of the great things about the Avary community is the chance to see synergy happen; to witness connections made between campers, families and staff arise in surprising ways. A great example of this phenomenon occurred at our 2005 Camp Reunion and Holiday Party.

“Pete Sears, a longtime friend of Danny Rifkin and father of one of our counselors, offered to play the piano for our party. We felt very lucky to have the donated time of a professional musician, providing ambiance for the event. When Pete arrived, he happily began playing what seemed to him to be background music for the Avary families, staff, and supporters in attendance.

“While the rest of the children waited for a Bingo game to start, Xavier took an interest in what Pete was doing, and asked if he could play too. It wasn’t long before the pair was jamming together, with Pete establishing a structured baseline to support the boy’s improvisational spirit. They quickly gained the attention of the whole room.

“Most surprising, the young man – just 9 years old – had never had piano lessons. The pair formed an instant musical friendship and Pete soon approached Avary with a request: could he help Xavier develop this talent?

“In 2006, we were able to purchase a used piano for Xavier and match him with Pete as a mentor. Unlike other mentor matches, where meetings are a chance to get out, Pete and Xavier spend most of their time in Xavier’s home in front of the small upright piano that sits at the base of the stairs. Sometimes they just improv jazzy riffs, but often they work at whole songs.

“Recently, Xavier played ‘Amazing Grace’ for his church and received a standing ovation. His grandma says it’s amazing how he’s excelling at the piano. We think the difference a caring adult can make is amazing.”

-Project Avary newsletter


Rex Board Perspective

Rex Foundation and Project Avary board member Cliff Palefsky says: “Project Avary is an extraordinary program that is trying to provide a sense of community and continuity to good young kids who are very much victims of their parents’ misconduct. Rather than be a high-level policy group, Avary literally is out there trying to break the cycle of violence one child at a time.

“There are several components to the program. The summer camp is the entry point where the kids get a chance to get away, commune with nature instead of an inner-city environment, and spend time with other children in similar circumstances. The camp helps create the feeling of community and exposes the kids to the culture of mutual respect and non-violence, and tries to help provide them with the skills necessary to navigate the world. The staff is composed of some wonderful, nurturing and well-trained counselors. We have psychologists available to help in individual cases.

“During the year there are monthly Adventure Days where a group of kids get together for participatory activities such as kayaking, horseback riding, and rock climbing in addition to some educational or skill building sessions. We’ve had a mentoring program, which has had a profound impact on the lives of some kids and their mentors.

“This community, families with incarcerated parents, is not among the most sympathetic classes of folks out there, and they’re often neglected by other funders and donors. The foster care system is broken, so these innocent kids are truly victims of the system. That is why it is so important for Rex to support this kind of program.”