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Someone for Sierra

A little girl craves the shared moments she has with a mentor who talks and plays and listens to her, but most of all, understands.

By LANE DeGREGORY, Times Staff Writer
Published September 4, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - Every few minutes, Sierra runs to the front door. She peels the curtain from the small window and stands on her toes, to see outside.

Feleesa's coming. She should be here by now.

"We're going to the beach," Sierra tells her little brother. "Feleesa's taking me swimming."

Sierra Douglas, who's 12, is wearing a too-big T-shirt over her turquoise bathing suit. Her long, thin braids reach to her waist. She's in the fifth grade at Gulfport Elementary. She's good at math, bad at reading. She wants to be a nurse so she can help people.

Sierra lives with her great-aunt and great-uncle and her grown-up cousin and her brother Sheldon, who's 10.

When Sierra was little, she and Sheldon got taken away from their mom. So they went to live with their dad. He played ball with them, took them swimming and out to eat. He loved Chili's. Then, five years ago, their dad got taken away from them.

"Where's that picture Daddy sent us?" Sierra asks Sheldon. "I want to show Feleesa."

At the dining room table, her brother is paging through a pile of letters. Sierra reaches over his shoulder and pulls out a Polaroid. Then she races back to the door.

She's been waiting for Feleesa all afternoon. All week, actually. Every Monday evening, Feleesa drives up in her little blue car and takes Sierra somewhere. Anywhere. Away.

Sometimes they talk about what happened to them. Sometimes they don't talk at all.

* * *

When the little blue car pulls up about 6:15, Sierra starts bouncing in her sandals. She unlocks the door. Feleesa hands her a stack of photos.

"Hey! Oooh, you brought them!" Sierra squeals, flipping through a half-dozen portraits of herself: Sierra posing by a palm tree, leaning against a wall, smiling in a close-up.

"Yeah," says Feleesa, who took the pictures last week. "These are copies of the ones I sent your dad."

Feleesa Bryant, 24, oversees the after care program at the Wellington School in Seminole. She is studying education at St. Petersburg College. She wants to be a teacher.

Last spring, Feleesa saw an ad in the paper: The Children's Home Society of Florida needed volunteers to mentor kids whose parents are in prison. Someone to spend just an hour a week with one of these kids. In the Tampa Bay area, more than 11,500 children have a mom or dad behind bars.

When she was growing up, Feleesa always thought she was the only one. It's not exactly the kind of thing you go around telling your friends. Maybe she could help one of these kids, she thought. She could at least say she understands.

She signed up for a three-hour training course. On April 11, Feleesa met Sierra.

They were both shy and silent that first day. They weren't sure where to start, what to say.

But on their second outing, over Cokes at KFC, they started swapping stories - and learned how much they share.

Sierra was 7 when she watched the cops carry away her dad. Feleesa was the same age when the FBI came for her mom.

* * *

The beach stinks. Red tide washed up all these dead fish on Treasure Island. Feleesa and Sierra drop their towels on the sand and splash into the gray-green water. It's bathtub warm and sort of slimy. All this seaweed stuff, floating on the surface.

They wade deeper, side by side, jumping small waves, laughing as the saltwater swallows their shoulders.

Sierra's great-aunt told her to call her mentor "Miss Feleesa." But Feleesa said that was too formal.

Sierra says Feleesa is more like a big sister, which is what Feleesa wants to be.

"How'd your math test go?" Feleesa asks, as they walk back through the water, toward the beach. "Did you get your score back?"

"Not yet," Sierra says.

They park themselves in the surf, a few feet from shore. Little waves wash across their legs. Sierra sifts the sand through her fingers, fishes out a tiny ruby shell. "Look," she says, holding out her palm.

Feleesa touches the shell, rolls it over with her finger. "It has two halves," she tells Sierra. "If you open it, it looks like a butterfly."

* * *

Feleesa wishes she'd had someone to talk to when she was a girl. Someone to take her to the beach, help her jump waves, show her shells.

Her dad died when she was 1. She was in first grade when she lost her mom.

Feleesa's parents married as teenagers and had four kids by the time they were 25. Feleesa was the baby. Her family lived outside Waco, Texas, near an Army base where her dad worked. Her mom worked at the Western Sizzlin as night cook.

Everyone who knew her folks talked about how happy they were. Only the workers at Western Sizzlin knew her mom was sleeping around. Looking for a way out.

One night, according to witnesses, Feleesa's mom asked the meat cutter if he knew anyone who could knock off her old man. She said she'd pay $500 after she got his insurance. The guy got a friend and a 16-gauge pump-action shotgun and started practicing in the park.

On the night of June 27, 1982, Feleesa and her brothers and sister were home with their grandmother. Keith Bryant picked up his wife from work about 10:30. Leesa Dawn Bryant lured her husband to a park, promising him sex.

It was raining. Cool for June in Texas. Feleesa's mom and dad sat in the front seat of their station wagon, drinking beer, sharing a joint, steaming up the windows.

When Feleesa's mom got out of the passenger door to pull her jeans back on, two men approached the car and shot Keith twice through the head.

She never went to her husband to see his wounds, find out if she could help, hold his head. Instead, she flagged down a car, got dropped off at a pizza place and told the manager her husband had been shot. The manager didn't think she seemed very upset.

Investigators questioned Feleesa's mom right after the murder, then let her go.

It took six more years to convince the triggerman to testify against her.

After the murder, Feleesa's mom moved with her kids to Kentucky. They bounced from one boyfriend's mobile home to another's apartment. Then they landed in Florida.

On July 5, 1988, Feleesa's mom was at work in St. Petersburg, sorting jewelry at a thrift store, when FBI agents arrested her and charged her with first-degree murder. She denied it, but was convicted and is serving life in prison.

Feleesa and two of her siblings went to live with a cousin who had just turned 21 - barely old enough to take care of herself. "No one really paid attention to us," Feleesa says. "We never had enough money for shoes."

For years, all through elementary and middle school, Feleesa and her sister and brother visited their mom in prison. They'd drive to Tallahassee and meet her in this big room like a school cafeteria, where they'd play cards and board games. Her mom didn't have to wear a prison uniform. She could wear jeans and jewelry and makeup and everything.

"All that time, growing up, she said she didn't do it. Why would I question her?" Feleesa says. "But when I was 15, I started needing to know. Really know. I started asking her stuff, doing research."

The more Feleesa found out, the angrier she got. Her mom wouldn't talk about certain things. Feleesa was sure she was lying about others. She started writing letters to her dad's family, to guys who knew him in the Army. She ordered copies of the indictment, of the court transcript.

After reading 1,095 pages of testimony, Feleesa stopped visiting her mom. She stopped taking her Sunday calls, wouldn't write her back. She told everyone her mom was in Tallahassee, going to computer school.

She couldn't tell the truth, not even to her friends. What would they think of her?

She felt guilty, even though nothing was her fault.

When Feleesa was 16, she dropped out of school. She started drinking, smoking, doing drugs. She was lost for years, until she met this boy. He took her home, introduced her to his parents, who took her to church. Finally, Feleesa found what she had been longing for: a family.

* * *

As the last streamers of sun sink into the Gulf, black clouds blow in above the beach. Sierra and Feleesa walk up the sand, watching the sky.

"I want to make a sand castle," Sierra says, sinking to her knees.

"You should make an angel," Feleesa says.

Sierra looks up, scrunches her nose. "An angel?" she asks. "How?"

"You go like this," Feleesa says. Still standing, she spreads her arms and legs. She pumps her left leg sideways, for the angel's skirt, brings both arms above her head, for wings.

"Like this?" Sierra asks, flopping on her back in the sand.

"Just like that."

* * *

Sierra doesn't need documents to know what happened to her dad. She remembers the whole thing.

May 11, 2000. Dinner time. Sierra's dad and her stepmom were in the living room with all four kids. They were all watching TV, or something.

Then this banging, pounding, kicking started. Shouting. Sirens. A whole bunch of police bashed in the door, came crashing into the living room, pointing their guns. Sierra's dad tried to run. The cops tackled him and handcuffed him. He bounced up and sprinted out the sliding glass door, into the back yard.

Sierra remembers running after him, thinking if he has to run, she should too. She remembers watching her dad, handcuffed, jump on the trampoline he'd bought her. She saw him try to spring over the privacy fence. She watched police throw him to the ground. She ran toward him, but a cop caught her. "You're not in trouble, honey," the officer said. "You don't have to run."

Sierra hasn't seen her dad since.

Sheldon Leon Douglas pleaded no contest to 10 counts of dealing crack, coke and marijuana - and to running a drug house. He's serving 10 years near Ocala.

He calls when he can. He writes Sierra every week. After hearing about the mentoring program in a prison parenting class, he signed up all four of his children. He wrote Feleesa, asking her to send pictures of his kids. He sent Sierra some of himself with his cellmate.

He keeps a journal in prison. His kids are his favorite subject. He writes the most about Sierra.

3/28/05: I feel so lost without my kids or hearing their voices sometimes. Where I can hear their laughter or excitement to hear my voice or what they been up to and how they miss me.

3/30/05: I share a parent class with other brothers locked up like myself. Some got the same charges and others are different, but all of us still want to be fathers and miss our roles of being there for all our kids. So many of us just want to spoil our kids. I found out that there's a lot of father hustlers like myself and we all enjoyed the pleasure of doing for them and it was a lot of us that was fully active in our kids' lives on a personal level.

4/20/05: Sierra also wrote me to tell me about how she did on the FCAT test. I got to say, she is the real reason I still got peace of mind. She also wrote me and told me how much she needed me. I was ready to give up.

5/20/05: It would be nice to get some pictures of my kids. It's been a year and a half since I got some new pictures of them. Plus I would love to see them playing together or even crying so I can come to their aid. There's just so much I would love to do for them. Even to the point of cooking or putting them to bed.

8/22/05: I got a letter from Feleesa today with some pictures of my kids. She just don't know how she touched me. My kids look so different from the last pictures. Maybe because Sierra's hair is done.

* * *

Sierra's not angry at her dad. Just sad. Okay, real sad. "He used to do my hair and stuff before church," she says. "I just miss him."

In many ways, Sierra has put her life on hold. Most of her plans are for five years from now, when she's 17, when her dad comes home.

* * *

It's dark when Feleesa and Sierra leave Treasure Island. Lightning is forking above the hotels. Feleesa makes sure Sierra straps on her seat belt, then steers her little blue car toward the causeway.

Feleesa sips a warm Sprite. Sierra crunches some Sun Chips. Thunder bursts beside them, lumbers away.

They drive on through the back streets, their faces striped in streetlight shadows. No one turns on the radio. No one talks. They seem comfortable in their shared silence. Sometimes you just need to be with someone who knows what it's like, who's been there. So you know you're not alone. And maybe even more, so you don't have to prove to anyone - not even yourself - that you're not your parents.

About 8:30 p.m., big raindrops start splatting the windshield. Feleesa pulls up outside Sierra's great-aunt's house.

"See you next week."

"I had a good time," Sierra says, opening the car door. She stops and turns. Reaches into the cup holder and scoops out the scarlet shell. "Oooh, it broke!" she cries, cradling the two halves in her hand.

Feleesa looks down. "Well at least we found it together," she says. "And when we found it, it was whole."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com

11,500

That's how many children in the bay area have an incarcerated parent. Mentors are needed.

When parents are sent to prison, their kids serve the sentences, too. Many, like Sierra and Feleesa, wind up living with relatives or in foster homes.

Last summer, the Children's Home Society of Florida received a $2-million grant to start a mentoring program for kids who have a parent in prison. Volunteer mentors agree to spend at least an hour a week with the child, for at least a year. The mentors help the children with homework, take them to the beach, bowling or to baseball games.

So far, 31 children in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Polk counties have been matched with mentors. Another 28 have signed up, but are waiting for mentors.

Sierra's younger brother Sheldon, 10, signed up in February but is still waiting. "We're having an especially hard time trying to recruit male mentors," says Tina McGowin, who oversees Pinellas' program.

Mentors must be at least 21 years old and pass a background check. Children must be between the ages of 4 and 16.

If you're interested in becoming a mentor, or if you know a child who has a parent in prison who might benefit from having a mentor, call McGowin at 727 552-1482, ext. 229, or e-mail her at Tina.Mcgowin@chsfl.org

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