• Community Service
Ava Martoma ‘25 Wins 15K in Seed Funding at National Changemaker Challenge

In the 2023 “Changemaker” Challenge, KidsMates Inc., a non-profit organization co-founded by Ava Martoma '25 and her brothers David and Joshua, achieved recognition as Grand Prize winner. The competition, sponsored by T-Mobile, the T-Mobile Foundation, and Ashoka, seeks initiatives driving positive change. KidsMates was selected as the "Equity in Action" category winner and will receive $15,000 in seed funding to support their efforts to facilitate communication between incarcerated parents and their families, as well as advance their advocacy work.

Joshua Martoma, Ava Martoma '25

KidsMates' core focus is to foster resilience among children facing adversity, with a particular emphasis on those impacted by parental incarceration. Ava Martoma explained, "There’s a stigma around having an incarcerated parent, and we want to say, 'This is common. You’re not alone, and you have a community to support you.'"

Martoma's personal experience with parental incarceration informs her commitment to this cause.  "I've found the courage to talk about this issue because I didn’t want anyone else to go through what I did. Parental incarceration is a silent American epidemic. It’s more common than childhood asthma in America, and yet we still don’t talk about it. I had to navigate this process entirely by myself because there were no resources out there to guide me. I needed to change that.”

KidsMates began by aiming to provide books in prison family visiting areas. Kids were getting in trouble while visiting parents just because they were bored, Martoma explained. When she first offered to donate books, she was initially turned down by prison officials, who insisted that donations must come from a non-profit organization. “So we formed a non-profit,” Martoma said. To date, they’ve expanded their book project to reach 23 out of 36 states in the U.S. with federal prisons.

When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted prison visiting arrangements, KidsMates redirected its efforts toward state and national legislative and advocacy work. Their endeavors contributed to the passage of the Martha Wright-Reid Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022, which mandates the Federal Communications Commission to ensure reasonable charges for inmate electronic communications with individuals outside the institution. As a result, several states are beginning the process of making such communications free.

Martoma emphasizes the importance of communication, stating, “Communication is the foundation of bonding with an incarcerated parent — or a parent in general. This goal is something we care about,”-  a sentiment that resonated with the Changemaker Challenge judges. “In our pitch, we talked about how [T-Mobile] was uniquely positioned as a telecommunications company to help with our goal of free communications or finding different opportunities for families to stay connected,” Martoma said. The judges, she noted, “asked great questions and helped us to think more about our project.”

In addition to their work in communications and advocacy, KidsMates is engaged in health and wellness initiatives aimed at children coping with the stress associated with having an incarcerated parent. Martoma pointed out, “If pediatricians can screen for this early and provide resources for these children to develop resilience, and share those resources with caregivers and teachers, we can help prevent negative health and well-being outcomes that occur later in life.”

Ultimately, Ava Martoma hopes that KidsMates' efforts will empower children to “own the label of parental incarceration instead of letting it own them. We want every single kid to know that their identity is so much more than having a parent who is in prison. Their identity is filled with the things that they love, their hobbies, the things they enjoy, rather than ‘your dad is in jail, your mom is in jail.’”

For additional information, contact Lisa M. Gillard H'17, director of public relations, at lgillard@lawrenceville.org.