Obama senior adviser to work with Wichita’s young women

Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, makes a point while Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Washington Post reporter Sari Horowitz listen during a panel discussion on criminal justice reform in February.
Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, makes a point while Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Washington Post reporter Sari Horowitz listen during a panel discussion on criminal justice reform in February. Washington Post

Valerie Jarrett, senior White House adviser to President Obama, is coming to Wichita on Saturday to help mentor young women.

Her own inspiration for doing this: Wichitan Lynn Gilkey, who has mentored hundreds of young women, and whose true-life tale could be the stuff of storybooks.

Gilkey is a recovering crack addict and jail inmate who once went to court for a hearing while shackled to the arm of multiple-murderer Jonathan Carr.

“You never forget a moment like that,” she said. She tells that story sometimes while she mentors young people.

Her past isn’t the only twist in this tale.

Jarrett volunteered to come help Gilkey after hearing Gilkey’s story of redemption and charity work from Mark Holden, chief counsel to Koch Industries.

For more than a year now, Holden and Jarrett have met at the White House and collaborated on a plan to reform the criminal justice system.

“There are people in Washington today who believe that there should be retaliation for you if you even have dinner with someone from the other party,” Jarrett said Thursday in a phone call from the White House.

“But for us it is heartwarming to work with Mark,” she said, “who is willing to put aside what Charles and David (Koch) might think about the administration in order to help us get something good done.”

Gilkey’s life story, and how the Kochs’ chief lawyer played a key role, goes like this:

Lynn Gilkey and her husband, David, were arrested in 2000 after police broke in their door. The Gilkeys were selling crack to finance their crack habits, Lynn Gilkey said. Police let them send their children to relatives. David had already spent time in prison; they both faced jail time.

But after jail, they got probation, took back their children, dedicated their lives to God, became full-time youth mentors, told about their mistakes publicly and repeatedly as a cautionary tale – and have mentored hundreds of Wichita children for years apiece ever since.

“I made a promise while I was in jail – I promised God that if He got me out of this situation I would dedicate my life to making sure young girls would not go down the road I did,” Gilkey said.

Jarrett will be the keynote speaker at Gilkey’s “Sisterhood of Queens” annual gathering. She’ll address 35 to 40 girls ages 14 to 18, at what Gilkey set up as a graduation from her program. The young women all had to keep up good grades in school and meet other standards to stay in her group.

“Some of the girls we work with have adult responsibilities; some live in single-parent households,” Gilkey said. “Some are in foster care. Some have parents incarcerated. Many have their own personal struggles and family struggles, and must sometimes do a lot: Go to school, make the grade, pass classes, work. We hope they can go to college, but we want them first to complete high school and choose a healthy lifestyle.”

She thinks hearing from Jarrett, an African-American woman who is a close friend and senior adviser to the president, will inspire her young women.

“I hope to share with them how much I care about them and how much of a priority this kind of mentoring is to President Obama,” Jarrett said. “I want them to know that the sky is the limit for them, and that Lynn Gilkey and all of us are here to make sure they get the help they need.”

The Gilkeys spent years mentoring youngsters without pay, struggling to earn a living. Their work eventually inspired local philanthropists, who now finance Rise Up for Youth Inc., their nonprofit.

Within that nonprofit, David mentors young men in a group called “Do You Want to Live or Die.” Lynn mentors young women in a group called “Caring Ladies Assisting Students to Succeed.” That’s the group Jarrett will meet on Saturday.

Even though Charles Koch has spent tens of millions of dollars trying to defeat Obama and other Democrats in national elections, Jarrett and Holden have become allies in trying to reform the U.S. prison and criminal justice systems.

Koch has said criminal cases are often overcharged, that too many people are put in prison for too long, and that these excesses damage millions of families and diminishes the national economy. On that issue, Koch has said, he and the president found common ground.

Holden said he has visited the White House seven times in the last two years to plot justice reform strategy with Jarrett, with White House adviser Roy Austin Jr., and others.

The general plan they worked out, Holden and Jarrett said, was to hammer out proposed bi-partisan legislation, backed by the Kochs and the White House, to (among other things) reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences and invest in job training, drug treatment and other programs.

On his last visit to Jarrett in January, Holden brought the Gilkeys and arranged a White House tour.

Jarrett told Holden the White House was working to set up conferences on youth mentoring groups, and re-entry programs for convicts coming out of prison, and did he know such groups in Wichita?

“I told her about Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Wichita Boys and Girls Club – and about a group my wife and I support, David and Lynn, two ex-offenders who turned their lives around, dedicated themselves to God and to help children have a better life,” Holden said.

Holden told Jarrett that he’d personally heard passionately told stories from some of the youngsters Lynn Gilkey mentored, and that some of them, with Gilkey’s help, now go to college.

Jarrett volunteered on the spot to come to the Sisterhood of Queens event.

“That’s absolutely worth a flight to Wichita,” she said.

Sister of Queens

When: 11:30 a.m. -2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Holiday Inn East, 549 S. Rock Road

Tickets: $40 each, available at eventbrite.com