Advocate Walker, who retires today, served children of parents in jail
Youngsters swishing down a slide or playing with blocks in the family center in the Allegheny County Jail can credit Claire A. Walker for what otherwise could be a boring wait of at least an hour.
Before the center, known as Gwen’s Den, opened, “they had nothing to do,” said Walker, 75, of Wilkinsburg, who on Monday will retire as executive director of the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation.
All they had to occupy themselves were “sugar-coated snacks from the vending machines,” she said. They would “start bouncing off the wall, and the officers (would) have to keep order, so it was a very difficult situation.”
In 2006, the foundation spearheaded the opening of the center, formally called the Gwendolyn June Campbell Elliott Family Activity Center, in the jail on Second Avenue, Downtown. It is named for a late Pittsburgh police commander.
The center is one effort Walker oversaw for the foundation, a Downtown nonprofit that issues grants and advocates for the well-being of children whose parents are in jail.
“For a little foundation, they made a huge impact by focusing on the children of incarcerated parents,” said Marc Cherna, director of Allegheny County Human Services since 1997. “They picked an issue that did not get much attention and brought that to the forefront.”
The Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation’s portfolio totals $6 million, compared with giants in the city that have up to $1 billion, and awards about $300,000 a year.
“Children are people whose voices are generally not heard,” Walker said. “I have constantly sought to give a voice to the words of people whose voices are not heard.”
Pamela W. Golden, former vice president of the foundation’s board, will serve as interim executive director.
Walker grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and received a bachelor’s degree from Queens College and a master’s degree and a doctorate from Columbia University, all in history. Her first job after college was as assistant social planner with the Model City Program in Reading.
Seeing poor people land in jail because they could not afford bail, she arranged a program with the district attorney and the court to help the impoverished avoid jail if they were not a threat to themselves or others or a flight risk.
Walker later served as director of policy and program development for the state Department of Public Welfare’s Office of Children, Youth and Families and executive director of Family Resources, the largest child abuse treatment and prevention service in the Western Pennsylvania.
After the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation hired her in 1997, she helped it focus on the children of incarcerated adults, a project that has run for 10 years.
“There are 8,500 children in Allegheny County whose parent or parents are in jail or prison, 100,000 in Pennsylvania and 2.7 million in the U.S.,” Walker said.
“If 10 is the highest measure of success, I would say she is off the chart because she contributed to establishing a network that will continue the work she started,” said Anna Hollis, executive director of Amachi Pittsburgh.
The group, which the foundation supports, serves the children of jailed parents by providing mentors or activities such as bowling.
She was among nonprofit leaders who worked with county officials to create a Discharge Center, which allows incarcerated parents to advise their families of the impending homecoming and help smooth the release.
Divorced and the mother of four stepchildren, Walker said she is not sure what she’ll do in retirement.
“I’m waiting for the next chapter of my life to write itself,” she said. “The older you get, the more likely something will happen that will limit your options.”
Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at 412-320-7828or [email protected].