By Ruby Siefken

For The Diamondback

Twice per year when Anna Tovchigrechko was a teenager, she embarked on an eight-hour car ride to a New York State prison from her home in Maryland to visit one of her parents, who was incarcerated when Tovchigrechko was in sixth grade.

When Tovchigrechko shared her experience with her peers and others in her community, she felt shame, she said, because she was the only one at her affluent middle school who experienced having an incarcerated parent. Now a sophomore psychology major at the University of Maryland, Tovchigrechko used her experiences as fuel to found The UnLocked Project, a support group for students with incarcerated loved ones.

“I experienced a lot of shame and stigma and I couldn’t really talk about it with anybody,” Tovchigrechko said. “I was thinking ‘do I want this to kind of just be a thing that happened in my life, or do I want to actually use this kind of adversity and make something good out of it?’”

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On Nov. 19, Tovchigrechko held her first UnLocked Project support group meeting in collaboration with the public policy school’s Do Good Institute’s Accelerator Fellowship program, which offers training, development and networking opportunities for nonprofits and student leaders.

The meeting provided a space for people who have or had a loved one in prison. Three community members joined Tovchigrechko for the meeting.

“Because it’s such a niche thing, it’s hard for people to understand that experience if they haven’t gone through it themselves,” Tovchigrechko said.

Yasmine Arrington Brooks, a Washington, D.C.-area resident whose father has been in and out of prison for her entire life, attended the meeting.

The support group was “small but mighty,” she said.

“It was a really unique bonding experience,” Brooks said. “Very therapeutic for myself as well.”

Brooks and Tovchigrechko connected when Tovchigrechko was in high school. Tovchigrechko received a scholarship from ScholarCHIPS, which Brooks founded in 2010 to support students whose loved ones are incarcerated.

At the Nov. 19 event, Tovchigrechko and other attendees had conversations about their experiences, how having a parent in prison made them feel and what they felt they lacked growing up.

Da’Jauna Savage, a junior criminal justice and criminology major, was also among the attendees.

“The event was very refreshing and supportive for me,” Savage said. “I was able to relate with some of the other members, hear their stories, they heard my stories, and we were able to support each other. I didn’t feel alone.”

Savage’s father has been incarcerated numerous times throughout her childhood and adult life, she said.

She said she plans to attend more UnLocked Project meetings going forward.

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During her time at Sherwood High School, Tovchigrechko started a club called Helping Hands. The club initially created cards for older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic to deter feelings of isolation, but it later pivoted to raise funds for children with incarcerated parents.

More than 100 people from across the country joined Helping Hands, Tovchigrechko said.

“It honestly made me really emotional because having an incarcerated parent was very hard for me, so it was cool to see that I could make at least a little bit of a change,” Tovchigrechko said.

Tovchigrechko said she was happy the support group provided a “meaningful experience” to those involved.

She is planning a second event for the new year. Tovchigrechko hopes to open future UnLocked Project events to those interested in criminal justice and advocacy.

Both Savage and Brooks praised Tovchigrechko’s leadership.

“She allowed everyone to feel comfortable opening up,” Savage said, “I didn’t feel silenced or disregarded.”