A Former Parole Officer Plays Surrogate Mom to Kids with Parents in Jail

updated 09/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At M.B. Smiley High School in an impoverished part of Houston, more than half the 1,650 students live with a painful reality: They are or have been among the 2 million U.S. children with a parent behind bars. Many of the students have been shuffled between relatives and foster care, leaving them feeling unloved and unsafe. But into that void has stepped Marilyn Gambrell, 50, a former parole officer, who in 2000 started a program at M.B. Smiley High called No More Victims. Essentially a support group offered as a daily elective course, Gambrell's classes have given more than 300 students a chance to vent their frustrations, share coping skills and, most importantly, feel they aren't alone. "I know these are the kids society has written off because they're supposed to turn out like their parents," says Gambrell, who has a grown daughter of her own. "But they are worth saving. I've seen the proof."

DEQULAH WOODS, 19
I had only seen my father twice, at 13 and then at 17. The first time we hung out a bit. Then we ended up at a crack house. The second time, he said, "Daddy's not doing drugs anymore. It's gonna be different." But it wasn't. He bought crack again. That hurt. I felt like he loves drugs more than me, like I didn't mean anything to him. I started carrying razor blades to school, praying for the courage to kill myself. When I found out about Marilyn's program, it saved me. Before, I would express my anger—a lot of it—by cussing. But Marilyn teaches us how to say what we're feeling in a positive, smart, calm way. Now, my dad is always asking me to come see him, and a few months ago I decided to go. He ended up walking me to the bus stop. He hugged me and said, "I love you." I turned away and got on the bus. I guess I was in shock. But I was happy. It's the first time he ever said it. [Woods is enrolled in Houston Community College and plans to study child psychology.]

BE'LEN IZQUIERDO, 16
My father sold drugs, and my mother became a crack addict. When I was 2 years old, we were in the car and I was sitting in a baby car seat. My dad had packed two baby bags. One had baby supplies. The other had cocaine. The police pulled us over. My father was taken away, and they sent me to Child Protective Services until my mom came and got me. I tried to kill myself with pills when I was 12. I fought constantly with everyone—it was the only way I could cope with the pressure I felt. By my third day in No More Victims, I was crying my eyes out. I'm more of a person now. I can tell people about what I've been through and how I have improved. I spent the summer working at a motorcycle store and taking classes to skip 10th grade. I'm making enough money to buy my brother Ellis's clothes and school supplies. But I've decided to stay in 10th grade, to be with my classmates. Right now I'm feeling good about my future. I won't be like my mother or father. I've been told I'm precious, I'm a diamond.

MICHELLE WALKER, 34
I'm one of the parents who Marilyn has invited to speak to her class. I got hooked on crack in 1988. I sold my body and my kids' clothes and used our food money. But my daughter Anteniecia never gave up on me. She'd say, "Mama, Miss Gambrell can help you." I finally met Marilyn right after I quit cold turkey in 2000. She helped me stay focused, then told me it might help my recovery to talk to her class. I thought those kids would think I was the lowest person, but I told them the truth—the worst things I've done. Stuff I could be in prison for now. One kid yelled, "You're gonna be right back out there again just like my daddy!" It seemed like that one hour I spoke was forever. But after it was over, each of them gave me a hug and told me they loved me. I'm going to stay clean for my family—including Marilyn and all those kids.

BRANDON O'NEAL, 18
I was a true psycho. My daddy's been gone since I was little. To a child with a mother or father who's in prison, there's nothing you can do or say to fill that spot in their heart. My anger didn't start to ease until I got involved in No More Victims. Now I go to prisons to speak to the inmates. I tell them, "I'm just gonna be real with you. For those who have girls, how do you know that your little girl is not being beaten or physically abused right now? You hurt her as much as the man who rapes her because of the simple fact that you're not there."

Anna Macias Aguayo and Joy Sewing in Houston

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