Alternative Directions provided a free two-week summer program for 25 children with an incarcerated parent this summer. (Lauren Loricchio/Baltimore Sun video)

Life hasn't been easy for KeSean Ellis, a 12-year-old whose mother has been in and out of prison for the past seven years.

With his mother currently in prison and a father who was killed two years ago, KeSean might have ended up in foster care if his grandmother, Sheila Jupiter, hadn't taken him in.

Jupiter, 56, who struggles with medical issues, says she had just finished raising a grandson and wasn't sure she was ready to do it all over again.

"There came a point in time where I had to make the decision, if he was going to go into the system or if I was gonna do it," Jupiter said.

But Jupiter is getting help with KeSean from Alternative Directions, a nonprofit that provides assistance to incarcerated adults and their families.  Jupiter says she was reluctant to accept their help at first. But she says they continued to reach out to her and eventually their persistence paid off.

KeSean is part of the Children of Incarcerated Parents (CHIP) mentoring program run by Alternative Directions.  The program matches kids who have a parent in prison with a mentor from the community.

CHIP Program Director Sarah Kennedy, who has worked for the organization for almost a year, says mentors are a diverse group who come from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds.

A 2010 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that over 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent behind bars. With unstable home lives and parents who can't always be there for them, having a mentor can really make a difference that leads to a positive outcome, Kennedy says.

Jupiter agrees. "I think the mentors are great.  The ones I've met, they care about those kids."

For the first time, this summer CHIP provided a free two-week summer program called Baltimore Connectors.  The program was funded by a $20,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"In the past we weren't able to have a summer program for the kids because their families really couldn't afford to pay for it," Kennedy said.

With the help of six other camp counselors, Kennedy introduced the 25 kids to new people and places by taking them on a new trip every day.

"The reason it's called the connectors program is it's all about helping kids make connections with people and places and ideas that they really haven't had access to in the past," Kennedy said.

Trips included a day visit to Washington, D.C., where the kids learned how they can impact their government, a tour of the Johns Hopkins University campus, a stream cleanup in Rocky Point Park, and a community art project with a local artist where the kids made self portraits.

"We're trying to connect them with service opportunities, art opportunities, so it's definitely educational but also a lot of fun for the kids," Kennedy said.

Because the majority of the kids in the program come from low-income families, they rarely have the opportunity to be exposed to people, places and ideas outside of their immediate neighborhood, Kennedy said.

Incorporating art and music activities was a priority because a number of the kids attend schools without funding for the arts, Kennedy said.

"Many of them are very interested in music. They love the idea of music.  But for many of them they've never had a music lesson or music class in their life. So being able to expose them to successful musicians in Baltimore is a really big deal," she said.

On a day trip to the Johns Hopkins University campus, the kids saw what attending college is like.

Kennedy says she hopes the visit showed them going to college is an attainable goal, despite the number of financial and educational setbacks they face.

"They're really smart kids," she said.