SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – Tanea Lunsford became the first in her family to graduate from college this year- not just any college, but Columbia University. It was a leap for a kid with no money who had to grow up without her parents.

“They never knew anyone like me,” said Lunsford of her classmates. “Specifically, no one like that could get into Columbia, or graduate from Columbia.”

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“For her to make it would have been good enough,” said her grandmother, Raenette Sanders. “(She made it) just grand, bigger than you think you can think.”

We met Tanea back in 2009, she was a 17-year-old senior at the San Francisco High School for the Arts. Her gift was and still is writing:

“Having an incarcerated parent often means being part of a family where hiding the truth becomes a way of life. My father was sentenced to two years in prison the day before I was born. As I grew older, we would visit almost every weekend,” she wrote. “Early on a Sunday morning we would stand in line for a long time behind what seemed hundreds of women in heels and too much make-up and perfume, trying to make up for the circumstances, trying to cover up the sadness. My mother was sad, too. The judicial system had affected us all, it had separated us. “

It is difficult for researchers to isolate the effects of having an incarcerated parent when so many other risk factors are often at play including poverty, drug use, and the quality of the relationship the prisoner has with his or her child. But, the research does indicate that when a parent is incarcerated it puts the child at higher risk of living in poverty, and there is no question that the removal of a parent is traumatic for a child.

When Tanea was 17 we followed her to the San Francisco County Jail, talking to prisoners about what it was like having a dad behind bars.

“My dad being in prison, my mom being sick, I couldn’t control that,” she said. And losing her dad was just the half of it. She kept her mom’s illness a secret until the fire.

“My mom had set our room on fire because there were demons, and the only way to get rid of them was to burn them,” recalled Tanea. They took her mother away to San Francisco General and the kids learned the words: bipolar schizophrenia.

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Before that time, Tanea had hidden her mom’s illness and covered for her.

“When my mom locked herself in her room I would tell my sister she was too tired from working to cook dinner, and I would make us cup-of-noodles. When my grandmother asked how my mom was doing, I lied about the severity of our situation to make everything sound fine. Instead of saying, ‘Mom won’t let us drink the tap water. She thinks there is poison in it,’ I would say, ‘I got us a huge gallon of bottled water from the store. We like the taste better.’ Watching my mother change was devastating, but covering it up came easy. After all, I had already spent years hiding the truth about my father from my friends and teachers,” she wrote.

Tanea’s grandmother took in the kids.

“My grandmother was my savior,” she says.

Now Tanea is trying to help some other kids heal. She works with a program called Making It Right, with Community Works in San Francisco. They work with teenagers who have committed non-violent crimes who have been referred by the D.A. in an attempt to get them to tell the truth and take responsibility for what they’ve done. Eventually they meet their victim and the victim gets to tell them how they feel and how the crime affected them. The victim then spells out what it would take to “make it right” and the teenager makes restitution.

It is a new area of work called “restorative justice” and it perfectly fits Tanea’s goals of working in the area of incarceration and healing. Her background makes her uniquely suited for this type of work.

“When one person is hurt, when one person dies, there is a string of violence. Someone else is hurt, someone else dies. And it’s really a cycle of violence, a cycle of hurt a cycle of trauma that has not been addressed,” she said.

Now Tanea Lunsford’s goal is to address the violence and to start the healing.

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