About twice a year from sixth through 10th grade, Anna Tovchigrechko would take an eight-hour drive with her father to visit a loved one at an upstate New York prison. She stood in line, went through the metal detector, and waited. When her loved one arrived, they’d play Scrabble or cards and talk, correctional officers always nearby.
“I really felt very alone and very ashamed and just very isolated because no one really talks about prisoners,” says Anna, now 16 and a junior at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring. “No one really cares, honestly, about people in prison or their families. And so I never knew anybody who was going through the same thing that I was.”
The person she was visiting—Anna requested that the individual remain anonymous—was released from prison in October 2019, but the memories of shame and solitude have stayed with the Olney teenager. So last April, Anna enlisted her friends—and later their Instagram followers—to start a student-led organization called Helping Hands. She launched projects to support people struggling through periods of loneliness, like the kind she endured as she carried her secret for five years.
“I told my very close friends, but nobody knew that I had just been to a prison while I was taking my math test in geometry,” she says. “I would visit my friends’ houses sometimes and I would see these happy families and I just got…really depressed—like, why do I have to go through all this crap?”
To combat the isolation brought on by the pandemic, Helping Hands started mailing handwritten cards—over 1,000 of them, with messages such as “We’re in This Together” or “Stay Strong”—to local nursing homes this past April. Last September they organized a fundraiser for the Angel Tree program of the nonprofit Prison Fellowship, which provides Christmas gifts to some of the 2.7 million children in the United States who have an incarcerated parent. “What stuck with me the most was seeing other people [in the prison], especially when I saw kids my age. …I would be like, ‘Dang, they’re going through the same thing that I am,’ ” she says. “It was just very humanizing to see these mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives of [incarcerated] people have people visit them and love them.”
Anna cried when the group, which has about 60 active members, raised $1,000 in one day. Through what she calls “the ripple effect” of supporters sharing the fundraiser via social media, they ended up with almost $7,000, enough to provide presents for more than 300 children. “They deserve attention,” Anna says. “And they deserve love.”
She set up a website with an online form so people could create their own Helping Hands chapters; there are now 12 of them in schools across the county, and also in Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey. She saw other student-led clubs posting short slideshows, so she began publishing her own on Instagram, including one about the impact on families when a parent is incarcerated.
After the Angel Tree fundraiser, Helping Hands made holiday cards to give to homeless shelters and rehabilitation centers, including Stepping Stones Shelter in Rockville. Even though many of the members have never actually met, the virtual community has helped teens forge connections as they wrestle with ways to do their part during the pandemic. “Especially when none of us were allowed to go anywhere, I think it really provided a beacon of hope,” Anna says.
Within the organization, Anna has met others who can relate to her experience, and when they share their stories with her, she sends them private messages. “That’s been one of the most rewarding parts of it all,” she says. “I remember feeling so alone, and now…I can actually be the person to provide at least a little bit of support, a little bit of solidarity to people who are still going through it or who have gone through it.”
The loved one Anna visited in prison says she was taken aback by the teen’s ability to harness her pain and transform it into empathy. “She’s the proverbial ‘best possible outcome’ person ever,” the woman says. “Yes, she was hurt. Yes, this is something she does not think fondly of. But she managed to make the best of it.”
A member of the track and field team, president of the Spanish Honor Society and an avid artist, Anna is considering studying criminal justice in college and hopes to someday make Helping Hands an official nonprofit. Though it was “probably the hardest experience of my life” to have someone close to her in prison, Anna has unearthed a silver lining. “It provided me a really unique perspective on other people,” she says. “[And] Helping Hands came out of it.”