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SOE doctoral student provides inspiration for annual Hope House mural event

Kiara Lee presents from her book, "Be a Man, Tyrone" at the Hope House mural show

VCU School of Education doctoral student Kiara Lee and her children’s book, “Be a Man, Tyrone” took center stage at this year’s Hope House mural show, an annual event held to showcase artwork created by children and their incarcerated parents.

A story about the detrimental effects and pressure that a father’s incarceration can have on young boys, Lee’s book provided the inspiration and central theme for the D.C-based nonprofit organization’s event, held last month at the offices of prestigious law firm, McDermott Will and Emory.

“Writing this book was important to me, because it’s something that I’ve seen too often, especially in African-American communities: children forced to grow up too fast after a parent gets incarcerated,” Lee said. “I think people sometimes see that as a good thing, like they are giving this child responsibility. But what they don’t see is the psychological effects of that pressure.

Kiara Lee and her book

Kiara Lee (left) with her book at the Hope House mural show

“It can be detrimental to the child, it can affect them socially and affect their education, their performance in the classroom, among other things. It basically robs them of their innocence.”

Lee kicked off the mural show event, attended by more than 300 community leaders, donors and Hope House families, with a reading from “Be a Man, Tyrone.” From there, Hope House children followed suit, performing skits and providing personal stories illustrating their experiences growing up with an incarcerated parent.

“[The mural show] was a smashing success, and our very own Kiara Lee set the theme, the message, and the warmth for the evening,” Dr. Bill Muth, an associate professor in the School of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning, said. A member of the Hope House Board of Directors since 2005, Muth also played an integral role in the event, as he introduced Lee to the organization as well as attended the Hope House summer camps where the murals were created.

“It was an honor sharing my book with the Hope House and their families,” Lee said. “When we talk about prison sentencing, a lot of times the impact on the children gets overlooked. So I hope my book reinforces the fact that these are just children — they should be allowed to embrace childhood.”

Now in her second year of the School of Education’s curriculum, culture and change Ph.D. program, Lee has, even from a young age, been drawn to issues surrounding social justice.

This sense of advocacy, in fact, is part of what attracted her to VCU.

“VCU is very much about making what you learn apply to the real world,” Lee said. “School is important, don’t get me wrong, but what really counts is what you’re able to bring back to the community.”

About the Hope House

Founded in 1988, Hope House provides help and support for children and their incarcerated fathers. Its programs and trainings, which include its Father to Child Teleconference Program, Father to Child Reading Program, and Father to Child Summer Camp are designed to help families maintain close relationships during incarceration, and reduce the isolation and stigma, these families experience.

Hope House programs have served more than 1,000 families, facilitating more than 2,600 teleconferences and providing summer camp for more than 900 children and fathers.

Led by its director, Carol Fennelly, the Hope House organization has earned the prestigious Global Children's Fund Award and the White House Champions of Change Award, among other honors.

For more information about the organization, including how you can get involved, visit the Hope House website.