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Know Your Neighbors: Cheryl Niemo

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When confronted with her son’s incarceration, this Woodstock mom seized a chance to help others who shared her plight. Discover how Jail Brakers helps local families to cope.

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Cheryl Niemo didn’t know where to turn.

Nearly five years ago, her then 18-year-old son, Justin, got into serious trouble with the law and was sentenced to a long prison term.

Niemo, a Woodstock resident and mental health professional, was devastated, and tried to make sense of the situation. She looked everywhere for a support system but came up empty. So she started Jail Brakers, a nonprofit organization that offers emotional and physical support to families with an incarcerated loved one.

“We address the stigma that perpetuates fear, shame and isolation surrounding incarceration, and begin to cultivate hope,” she says. “We’re a public charitable organization dedicated to helping build better futures for children and families in our community.”

Jail Brakers support groups meet for 12 weeks at a time, and include time to share stories that build confidence and trust, dinners that foster friendships, and creative activities that help to reduce isolation. The group also provides gas cards and postage for members, and hosts a quarterly interfaith spiritual service at Unity Spiritual Center of Woodstock, 225 W. Calhoun.

How difficult was it, coping with the news that your son was sentenced to prison?

I had this feeling of overwhelming grief and helplessness. My younger son was devastated, too. I was a mom with limited resources, who didn’t know where to go or what to do. I looked for support in my community, but discovered there was nothing specifically designed for this type of situation. I also noticed that other families impacted by incarceration were struggling with the same emotional and financial difficulties. Families of the incarcerated often become stigmatized and isolated. They’re not given the opportunity to recover from this traumatic experience.

Justin was very trusting and confident as a young child. At 5, he became easily distraught and emotionally out-of-control. I assumed we would get through it, but he struggled with school, homework and behavioral issues. He had strengths, however, especially in arts and sports, which helped him to cope. But in middle school, Justin was diagnosed with a learning disability, and there’s a stigma that comes with learning disabilities; he struggled and eventually lost interest in both arts and sports. He was in turmoil over his own identity. He had substance abuse issues that, when combined with mental health issues, became a devastating mix.

How did you start Jail Brakers?

I collaborated with colleagues and a few area nonprofit organizations. Since then, we’ve provided support for more than 100 families from Woodstock, Johnsburg, Huntley, Palatine, Grayslake, and as far as Sparta, Ill. Many members come to us as referrals from friends, co-workers, schools and nonprofit organizations. These people were so full of grief, and experiencing such isolation that no one could understand. They were amazed that there was something out there that helps them without the presence of judgment. When you provide that type of care, these people can experience joy and purpose in life again. We’ve also helped families navigate the judicial system – not always with success – but they have a better understanding of the system.

There’s a lot of work to do, but we’re making progress. For example, we have a little girl in our group whose father is incarcerated. She’s had a difficult time and was unwilling to share. Over time, however, she began to trust us and receive the warmth our group offers. She’s talking more and starting to open up about her feelings. It’s wonderful to see.

Has Jail Brakers helped your healing process?

It’s been an ongoing process. There hasn’t been a moment where I’ve said I am healed; it’s a process, but I’m better, more whole, than five years ago. I feel good just knowing that I’m helping people through significantly painful times, and that I was able to create something that wasn’t available, to address these needs. It’s amazing to see these families come together. There’s something special about being there for a family that’s going through a difficult time like this.

How is your son doing?

He’s leaning on family and very appreciative of the support he’s receiving from those who love him. I see him once a month. He’s careful to reveal his feelings and he’s been responsible during his incarceration. He thinks our program is great, and he’s been an ambassador of Jail Brakers. He shares the message of hope with anyone he comes in contact with. He’s proud that I’ve put my energy into helping other people going through the same thing.

How can the community assist in your efforts?

We host a variety of fundraisers, including dinners, bingo and concerts. All donations are used to help offset the cost for support groups, gas cards to members, marketing material and guest speakers. Our Shop and Share event is coming up on Aug. 17, on Woodstock Square, beginning at 1 p.m. and ending with dinner and music by Cheryl Niemo and the Hometown Boys from 6-8 p.m. at Liquid Blues on Benton Street.

For more information, email Cheryl Niemo at jailbrakers@gmail.com, find Jail Brakers on Facebook, or mail to P.O. Box 404, Woodstock, Ill., 60098.

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