When Stephanie Regagnon of Kirkwood was in her 20s, a jury found her mother guilty of a federal crime and sent her to prison for four years. The family maintains that she is innocent.
The first time Regagnon visited her mom, she noticed small children stocking up on vending-machine snacks for their parents to enjoy when they came out to see them.
“It seemed like they were trying so hard to create a nice environment,” Regagnon said. “It was pretty soul crushing.”
Regagnon imagined the children waiting to see their parents would likely have a hard time getting to college. In 2010, she started a scholarship fund called Ava’s Grace to help young people whose fate brushed so closely against her own.
“Any of those kids could have been me if my mother had been in prison five, 10, 20 years earlier,” she said.
Regagnon’s mother Deborah Masten, a former mayor of Kirksville, was found guilty of “interfering with interstate commerce by way of arson” in connection with a 2005 fire at a bar the family owned.
The scholarship fund for teens with a parent who is or has been incarcerated is named for Regagnon’s daughter Ava Grace. Helping others has helped her family come to terms with her mother’s imprisonment.
“This foundation has really given a lot back to us, just in terms of peace," Regagnon said. “It has definitely been a silver lining.”
‘Like when you win the lottery’
For Javon Watkins of Venice, Illinois, Ava’s Grace has been life changing. Watkins’ father went to prison he was a year old and stayed there until Watkins was 17.
“[She was] just a single mom; it was hard,” Watkins said “And my mother had two kids.”
Watkins was a track star at Madison Senior High School, with big dreams of going to the Olympics. But it was hard to envision any sort of realistic future after graduation.
“I didn’t even think I could go to college,” Watkins said.
He applied for the scholarship and was shocked to learn he’d been chosen.
“It was unbelievable,” Watkins said. “It was like when you win the lottery.”
The scholarship fund gave Watkins $5,000 a year for four years. He’s taking classes at Highland Community College in Kansas and hopes to transfer before his junior year to Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois.
“I want to be a lawyer,” Watkins said. “And be able to do something my family couldn’t, like get a well-paying job and provide for all my family.”
Evolving conversation brings more donors
On Saturday, Ava’s Grace will officially tap eight recipients — bringing the total to 40 — in an event featuring hip-hop musician and motivational speaker SaulPaul. Regagnon met the entertainer through a national leadership program event they both attended.
“Then, I just called him up with a pretty unreasonable request, which was: ‘Please come to St. Louis and talk to and entertain our kids,’” Regagon said. “And he said, ‘Yes.'”
Ava’s Grace began by awarding two scholarships a year. Now, the organization gives eight annual awards. With this round of awards, the foundation has given out more than $800,000, consisting of individual aid ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 a year.
The money comes from individual and corporate donors. Corporations have come on board in recent years, as more and more people have begun talking about the effects of incarceration on families.
“When we first started this, people kind of looked at you a little bit weird,” Regagnon said. “That's not true anymore. The national conversation has evolved, and this cause does not seem so niche anymore; it doesn't seem so out there.”
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