Pontiac, Michigan (CNN) -- Christal Maki disappeared from her daughter's life when Mia was 2 years old.
The single mother from Michigan had stopped at a bar after her GED class. On her way home, she was pulled over, and police arrested her for drunken driving. It was her second offense. A judge sentenced her to one year in jail.
She didn't see Mia for months.
"Jail nearly ruined my relationship with my daughter. You miss so much when you don't see your child every day," Maki said. "The worst part was when she asked my mom, who was taking care of her at the time, 'Is my mommy dead?' I was crushed."
Maki said she was determined to do better. She enrolled in a parenting class offered at the jail. There, she learned about another program, the rare kind that would give her a chance to spend time with her child.
The program, Connections, is the brainchild of Lynn Crotty of the Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency. Crotty had seen research that showed parents are likely to stay involved with their kids if they do so early. She knew, too, that a stable home life could keep parents with criminal records out of trouble.
She picked an unexpected tool to create that stability: the federal pre-kindergarten program, Head Start.
Head Start is a free early-education program that began in the 1960s to make sure all kids were prepared when their regular schooling began. It mostly serves foster and homeless children, kids with disabilities, families eligible for government assistance or with incomes below the federal poverty guideline, about $22,000 for a family of four.
Since her agency already worked with prisoners and young children, Crotty decided to combine the two and prevent kids -- and parents -- from falling behind.
"Head Start wasn't designed just to teach children," Crotty said. "It was also designed to get parents involved in their children's education."
In 2004, Connections was one of a few prison-based Head Start programs in the country. Now it's a model that Crotty shares with program directors around the country.
Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Institution's Center on Children and Families, said parenting and life skills programs for male and female prisoners are common, but using the Head Start program is a unique twist.
"It's a good idea, and we ought to try it," Haskins said,"but we don't know what the long-term impacts will be."
The Michigan program works only with female prisoners who haven't been convicted of violent crimes or sexual offenses. Kids get lessons while visiting their parents in prison and with their caregivers outside prison.
Connections' workers help imprisoned parents set personal goals and find ways to stay involved, even from behind bars. They teach parents about their kids' educational and medical needs and tackle subjects such as age-appropriate discipline. Prisoners practice life and family skills they may not have picked up from their own parents. The hope is always that they'll be better prepared for life outside prison.
Maki said she especially liked the opportunity to teach Mia, whether the toddler learned spatial lessons by building a dinosaur puzzle, or everyday skills such as tying shoes and undoing buttons.
There were tough lessons for Maki, too.
"That first time I saw her after being away from her for months was overwhelming," Maki said. "When I saw her, I just started crying. I realized how much I missed in her life. To see a little blond girl running through the room, to hug her and to touch her, it's beyond words."
Outside prison, Connections workers visit with children's caregivers, too. They work to improve kids' educations but also to help with the unique challenges that may arise when a child's parent is behind bars. Social workers offer strategies to help with attachment issues and to anticipate emotional challenges that might arise once a parent is released.
"When I first got out, it was hard because all I heard was 'Grammy, Pappa, Grammy.' It was hard coming back after that long," Maki said. "The program really helped with our transition."
Connections now serves 24 families. The Detroit-based Skillman Foundation gave Connections a three-year, $100,000 grant to expand the program, but Crotty is appying for more grants.
"There is so much value in a program that's not just for the families but also for the whole community," she said. "Think about it -- 95 percent of people who are incarcerated are coming out into the community one day. Why not help an offender lead a much more stable family, one that is ready to participate in their community?"
Just as the children learn, Crotty said, she has seen the parents in the program grow in confidence, and their children's respect and trust in them grow.
Mia is now 4, and her mom volunteers at her preschool. Maki is taking classes, too, to earn her GED certificate with the hope of going to nursing school.
"We've really seen incredible growth in our parents, and we've seen them rise above whatever their current situation is and become active, engaged and empowered individuals," Crotty said. "That hopefully will stick with them for good."