Sabrina Ersland was 24 years old and facing a prison sentence. Incarceration wasn’t new to her. She had grown up in a dysfunctional home and spent much of her childhood, adolescence and young adult life in and out of foster homes, group homes, juvenile detention, and jail. But this time was different. She was pregnant.
Incarceration had become a pattern in her life offering her predictability and a certain amount of stability. But with a child on the way, she was determined to make a change. She desperately wanted to provide for her daughter what she never had as a child. “I didn’t know how, but I was determined to give this child the life that I never got.”
By the time she was sentenced, she had already had her baby. She woke up in her cell at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and thought about her five month old daughter determined to make a change. But she didn’t even know what responsible, positive parenting looked like. And she didn’t know what she could do from the confines of her cell.
She soon received information about Community Action’s Coffee Creek Early Head Start program. This early childhood education program is housed at the correctional facility and provides an opportunity for incarcerated moms to bond with their children, learn about parenting and child development, and helps them transition into the role of parenting upon their release. The children come twice a week to the early childhood classroom located at the correctional facility.
Sabrina got into the program when her daughter was 8 months old. The Community Action staff were able to help her understand what she was yearning to know – how to be a good parent. She soaked it all up and came away with a newfound set of parenting skills.
She learned about the educational importance of play and getting down on the floor to meet her daughter at her level. She learned about the importance of talking to her baby even before she was able to have a conversation. She learned about the different stages of child development and what to expect. Most importantly, she was given time to bond with her child so that the transition upon her release would be a smoother one.
As Sabrina approached her release date she was excited about reuniting with her daughter and had idyllic dreams about how those first few moments would go. Fortunately, the Community Action staff helped prepare her. The staff gently urged her to consider things from her daughter’s perspective. Sabrina wasn’t part of her daughter’s daily home life and routine. Her daughter only knew her in the classroom environment. They prepared Sabrina for possible scenarios including rejection.
When the day finally came and Sabrina arrived at home full of anticipation, her daughter looked at her, turned around, and ran away. At this moment, the rejection hit Sabrina hard. But then she realized that she was prepared to handle this. Because of the program, she had all the tools she needed. Remembering the importance of meeting her toddler at her level, she immediately sat down on the floor. She worked to normalize the situation by chatting with the other adults in the room. And most importantly, she waited for her daughter to come to her.
While sitting and waiting, gratitude swept over her. She thought about all the parents who don’t get the opportunity to learn what she learned, and she decided that she wanted to do something about it. She wanted to spend her life preventing other children from going through what she went through as a child. She committed herself to this cause and every education and career decision since then has been motivated by this goal.
Immediately after her release, she enrolled in PCC and earned an associate’s degree. She then earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Portland State University where she researched how to strengthen Head Start programs. She focused her research on Albina Head Start where both of her children were attending. She recently earned her master’s degree from PSU where her research focused on the lack of parenting support for incarcerated fathers.
She is also now a proud member of the staff of Albina Head Start. It wasn’t easy entering the field of early childhood education with a criminal history. But she went through an intensive screening process to get cleared and is happy to be working for the program that changed the trajectory of her own life.
She reflects on all she has done and says, “It is hard work, but you are changing outcomes of children’s lives. If I can help at least one family not go through what I went through as a child – that’s huge for me.”