You probably wouldn’t guess Olivia Stinson’s age from looking at her resume.
At 19, the Charlotte-native has created and nurtured her nonprofit organization, the PEN (Peers Engaged & Networking) Pals Book Club for Children of Incarcerated Parents, from only a few members and volunteers five years ago into a year-round program that reaches hundreds of people.
She was recently selected to win a $10,000 grant from Simple Skincare as part of the Makers awards, a program created by AOL and PBS to honor female leaders.
Stinson’s story begins around Christmas six years ago when her parents pulled a named off of the Angel Tree at their church, Greenville Memorial AME Zion. The Angel Tree is a national program that asks people to buy gifts for children with incarcerated parents.
Stinson loved the gesture but wondered “why couldn’t we help the children all year round?”
So at 13, she devised the initial plan for Pen Pals and began needling her mom to help her fulfill her wish.
“I really wanted to do something for a population of people who just get overlooked,” she said. “Every Christmas you hear about helping the homeless and the hungry, and these are major, major issues we face in our world today, but you rarely ever hear about the kids of incarcerated parents who may be going through those same things.”
The idea was simple and close to her heart: Create a monthly book club and mentoring program that would meet at her church to help teach these children the importance of reading and provide them with a social safety net.
“Reading is such a fundamental thing and it’s so important to get kids reading at a young age,” Stinson said. “... And I really wanted to provide these kids with the contacts of someone to call at anytime if something happened.”
The agenda changes each month. One month, the children will read a book on a topic like bullying, drinking and driving or practical information about education or finding a job. The next month the kids will return to discuss the book, share ideas and just talk to others kids who are living in similar situations.
The other side of the program is to create a place where the kids can’t be judged for their parent’s sins. Olivia Stinson has never had a parent incarcerated and she’s never asked a kid in her program what their parents were arrested for.
“If they decide to tell us then great, but otherwise we’re not going to ask,” said Jacqueline Stinson, Olivia’s mom. “We want to make sure the kids know we won’t judge them. We want to break the stigma that comes along with have an incarcerated parent.”