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RISE celebrates 20 years of sponsoring children of incarcerated parents

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Rhode Islanders Sponsoring Education has a simple mission: to raise scholarship funds for the children of incarcerated parents. Last month, the nonprofit celebrated its 20th anniversary with a fashion show at the Fete Music Hall in Olneyville.

“RISE is about dreams — the dream of opportunity and a better life for you and for your family,” said Kevin Vigilante, one of the organization’s three founders, during the March 10 fundraiser.

Despite the emotionally charged mission, the party was upbeat. The silent auction featured first-row Red Sox tickets and a signed football from the Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. The night ended with a fashion show starring local politicians and community leaders.

Since its founding in 1997, Rhode Islanders Sponsoring Education, or RISE, has helped more than a thousand children whose mothers or fathers are in prison. In addition to scholarships, RISE also pairs children with mentors and has a tutoring program.

The idea for RISE was born out of the experience of two local doctors – Vigilante and Tim Flanigan. Vigilante said the two were treating HIV-infected women who were in prison, and they wondered about the inmates’ children. “There was no pill to prevent prison,” Vigilante remembers thinking.

They quickly concluded that education was the solution. That led to the establishment of RISE, which the two doctors co-founded with Kristen Haffenreffer, who serves as the executive director.

Two decades later, the effects seem clear. Most children of incarcerated parents graduate from high school at rates around 55 percent, yet RISE participants finish high school at a rate of over 80 percent. Most continue on to college and some go even further, according to Vigilante.

“For these children, RISE has broken that intergenerational cycle of poverty, addiction, incarceration, and crime that has been so recalcitrant in our inner cities,” Vigilante said.

“We’ve spent billions of dollars over decades trying to break the cycle, and in our small way, right here in Rhode Island, we’ve done it.”

A former scholarship recipient, Bianca Perry of Providence, also briefly spoke at the event. Perry was neglected by her drug-addicted mother and spent much of her childhood in foster homes and homeless shelters. Thanks to help from RISE, Perry attended school and is now headed to law school. She also serves on the board for RISE.

“They inspired me to rise above the circumstances I faced in life,” she told the audience. “They inspired me to rise above and take advantage of education. RISE gave me hope.”