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Olivia and Tabitha Weeks

Olivia Weeks hugs her mother, Tabitha Weeks, after reading the essay that she wrote to get accepted into Harvard University on Monday during a program at the Decatur Correctional Center to honor volunteers. In the essay, Olivia Weeks credited the prison's reunification program with allowing her to maintain a close relationship with her mother.

DECATUR — Before her mother went to prison, Olivia Weeks was a competent student but not an outstanding one — certainly not one on track for an Ivy League education.

Then her mother and only surviving parent, Tabitha Weeks, pleaded guilty in 2012 to aggravated DUI in the death of Craig Payne, 41, of Bonnie. She served five years at the Decatur Correctional Center and was paroled in January.

When her mother left, Olivia Weeks, then 12 years old, made a choice to excel. She determined that she would not let the “black cloud of judgment” following her around her hometown of West Frankfort keep her from succeeding — and she would not let her mother’s mistake wipe away all the good she had done in her life.

"Despite all the ridicule, my mother's crime and subsequent punishment did not make me want to distance myself from her," Olivia Weeks told an audience of volunteers at the Decatur Correctional Center on Monday. "It actually made me want to stand out as her greatest accomplishment, an endeavor which transformed me into the woman I am today."

Soon, the senior at Frankfort Community High School will move on to a new challenge: Harvard University, where she'll begin classes with a full-ride scholarship in August.

"My mother's imprisonment did more than just motivate me to prove everyone wrong," she wrote in the personal statement submitted with her Harvard application. "It introduced me to my passions, opened my eyes to a deep well of injustice and transformed me into a woman who has the skills and ambition to change the world."

Olivia Weeks shared her story at the prison's volunteer awards banquet, saying she wanted to thank those who made it possible for her to have a relationship with her mother through the reunification program offered at the minimum-security women's prison.

Available to mothers who have children 17 or younger, the reunification program began in 2000 and allows children to spend time with mothers in a designated housing unit. They can talk, play games, work together on the child's homework and even participate in counseling, Warden Shelith Hansbro said.

Most weekends for four years, Olivia Weeks would make the three-hour drive with a friend or family member to see her mother. The two would talk, play cards and even make “yummy prison pizza,” said Tabitha Weeks, 37.

“I left when she was 12 and that was a pivotal time of her life, and I was gone,” Tabitha Weeks said. “And when I left, I never ever imagined there would be a way for me to be with her.”

The activities and support would not be possible without the work of the volunteers, Hansbro said. “We thank you and appreciate you more than you could ever know,” she said.

Volunteers also lead book clubs, Bible studies and gardening classes, in addition to providing other programs for mothers and children to remain connected. For example, Tabitha and Olivia Weeks also participated in the Mom and Me camp in the summer, which allows children to spend the day with their moms and then go camping at Lake Bloomington during the evening.

Volunteers also help throw birthday parties, Christmas parties and other events so that mothers and children can make happy memories.

Moms can “continue to be active in your child’s life, continue to parent even though you’re not there with your child every night,” Hansbro said. “You are still participating in their growth and development.”

Hansbro said Olivia Weeks is a living testament to the fact that life in the Decatur Correctional Center affects children on the outside, but she also represents what can happen when volunteers and programming allow mothers and children to have a relationship. She also credited the accomplishments of Tabitha Weeks, who she said refused to give up.

Tabitha Weeks said the reunification program gave her hope.

“My imagination told me I would be looking at her through a glass," she said. "Then for me to find out there was a way for me to have time alone with her, it was amazing."

While she was in prison, Tabitha Weeks participated in a book club run by a volunteer. Olivia Weeks said the club introduced her mother to reading and opened her mind to new worlds.

“One of the things that makes me feel closest to my mother to this day is discussing a story we’ve both recently finished,” Olivia Weeks said.

The book club ultimately affected Olivia Weeks' future after the mother and daughter both read "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J.D. Vance, which describes the author's journey from poverty to an Ivy League education. In the book, Vance explained that an Ivy League education can actually be more affordable than one at a state school for people in poverty because of the financial aid packages available.

This information encouraged the pair and helped lead to Olivia’s Harvard application.

Volunteers also helped Olivia Weeks and her mother connect after Olivia could drive herself to Decatur from West Frankfort. Because she was still just 16, Olivia Weeks needed to be checked into the prison by someone older than 18. The mother and son of the fellow inmate offered to help and met Olivia at the prison almost every weekend for two years to check her in and out so she could see her mother.

“(They) volunteered their time to me for no purpose other than kindness, and because of it my mom’s prison sentence never prevented us from feeling close to each other,” Olivia Weeks said.

Olivia Weeks and her mother got to spend at least nine hours together every month — no cell phones allowed. She said she sometimes wonders if that's even more quality time than other teenage mothers and daughters typically spend together.

Tabitha Weeks said staff members also were a positive force who made it so that she could spend time with her daughter.

“And they went above and beyond sometimes of what their job description was,” she said. “They listened when I had problems. They helped me get enrolled in college.”

Tabitha Weeks said she is attending John A. Logan College in Carterville and finishing up an associate's degree in general studies.

Though she described her relationship with her mother as "unconventional," Olivia Weeks said it is also amazing, and she's thankful for it.

“Her crime didn’t change the fact that for a girl who became pregnant at 18 and a single mother soon after, she did an amazing job,” Olivia Weeks said.

CLAIRE HETTINGER writes for the (Decatur) Herald & Review, a Lee Enterprises sister publication of The Southern.

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