BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — A young neighborhood girl got the surprise of a lifetime Friday when her father, released from a five-year stretch in Sing Sing Correctional Facility earlier that day, showed up at her summer camp.
Nikailah Burton, 10, froze when she saw her father Johnny Burton waiting for her in a classroom at Children of Promise, a Bed-Stuy organization that works to support children and families of loved ones who are incarcerated.
"What?" she said, apparently not believing her eyes.
Then she ran into his arms.
Johnny Burton, 49, was released Friday from Sing Sing, where he was serving time for a 2013 attempted robbery conviction, the latest in a string of convictions dating back to 1990, records show. His release came with seven years of post-release supervision, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
As he held his daughter close and wiped away tears, Burton said he intends to make this homecoming different from his previous ways.
"I’m taking it one day at a time, but I got so much making up to do to her and my family. They deserve so much more than I’ve given,” he said. “I can’t do this to them no more.”
Nikailah had her own plans.
"We’re gonna play games and have the best time of my life," she said. "I'm so happy to have my daddy back."
Joining them were Nikailah's mom, Karla King, who handed over Burton's sleepy eight-month-old grandson, the son of one of his step-daughters, when she arrived. It was the first time he held his grandson, they said.
As a member of Children of Promise, Nikailah and more than 300 other kids each year receive mentoring, mental-health services, and access to after-school and summer camp programs geared toward supporting children with parents or other loved ones behind bars.
Sharon Content, the group’s founder and president, started Children of Promise in 2009 to address what a colleague said was a dearth of after-school programs designed to not only keep the children of incarcerated parents busy in the afternoon but provide support and resources they might not find elsewhere.
“A lot of kids with parents in prison feel isolated, they might have behavioral problems,” said Denise Cermanski, the program’s director of development. "We give them a place where it’s specifically geared toward their needs."
The facility, part of the First AME Zion Church complex, is outfitted with a large basketball gym where on Friday children were racing about, screaming happily as staffers secretly decorated a classroom with balloons and a "welcome home" cake for Burton and family.
He and others waited nervously as staffers went to fetch Nikailah, who had been told she and a friend were being picked up by her mother for a special “last day of camp lunch.”
But when Nikailah — who had been told her dad was coming home on Monday — entered the room, she saw her father standing there and froze, wide-eyed in place, as staffers and family members yelled, "Surprise!”
Then she ran to hug her dad, as both father and daughter wept.
Content, who started the organization out of her basement before later moving into the MacDonough Street building, said her group fits into a larger constellation of programs and services geared toward making sure families get support while their loved ones are incarcerated and ensuring that when they do come home, the Johnny Burtons of the world stay home.
“We want Nikailah to know that Children of Promise is still a part of her family, still a part of her world, and that we’re still rallying around her and her family during this new transition in life,” she said. “This family now has the tools to not only be successful but to stop that cycle of intergenerational incarceration as well as the recidivism rate.”