"I would say, 'My parents are on a work trip; they’ll be back soon,' " Wandjell Browning tells PEOPLE in this week's issue

By Michelle Tauber
June 10, 2021 10:00 AM

The first time Wandjell Browning ever went to summer camp, it was at an Illinois prison. 

Just 10 years old and in the care of her grandmother - while her mom, also named Wandjell, and dad, Terry, both served time for drug-related issues - Browning had longed to experience the summers her classmates would describe at the start of each school year. 

"Kids would come back from break saying they went to Disneyland or kayaking or hunting - all of these fun family memories," Browning tells PEOPLE in this week's issue.

So when the prison where the older Wandjell was incarcerated offered a Mom and Me camp, Browning couldn't wait to go.

"It was the best moment of my life," she says of the three days spent roasting marshmallows, swimming and braiding hair in the prison gymnasium and on the surrounding grounds with her mom. "It had a huge impact on our relationship because I got to have that time with her, just breathing in her scent, hugging her."

The "amazing" memory of that summer camp would plant the seed for her work today. In 2020 Browning, now 25, and her husband, Marty, 29, launched the Freedom Child Foundation to support the 5.4 million U.S. kids who have one or both parents incarcerated. Rooted in Browning's own childhood experience, the foundation aims to ensure that every child who wants to stay connected to their incarcerated parent has the means to do so - through letters, calls or visitation - along with therapeutic support. 

Wandjell Browning (right) with her mom
Wandjell Browning (right) with her mom
| Credit: geoffrey stellfox

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"This is a population of kids who are not really talked about," says Browning. "I know, for me, trying to hide that my parents were in prison was really keeping me from blossoming. Once I became comfortable with sharing that, so many more people became comfortable with sharing their own stories with me."

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Today, the foundation helps support children impacted by parental incarceration by providing letter-writing supplies, transportation funds, mental health support and more.

"We tell these kids, 'We're here for you,'" says Marty.

Children such as 15-year-old Loreal say the sounding board is much needed.

"Whenever I talk to Wandjell, she actually listens," says Loreal, whose father is in prison. "She connects her experiences with mine, which makes it easier to open up." 

For more information or to donate, visit freedomchildfoundation.org.