Children of Promise
By Samantha Michaels
Not long after Sharon Content opened an after-school and summer program for youths in Brooklyn, she had an interesting conversation with one of her students. “Ms. Content?” said a little boy in her program, preparing to reveal a secret. “It’s hard to love someone who everyone else says is bad.” The boy was referring to his parent, because like an estimated 800,000 children, he lost one of them to the New York state prison system at a very young age.
Last week I had an opportunity to speak with Content about her program, called Children of Promise, which she created in 2007 to help children with incarcerated mothers and fathers. After working for several years at a local Boy’s & Girl’s Club, Content realized that these children had unique needs, and they needed a program specifically designed to address them. “Usually when a child is separated from a parent through death or divorce, there’s a level of sympathy or compassion provided to that young person,” she told me. “But for our children, when the reason has to do with imprisonment, the same level of compassion isn’t there.”
Children of Promise serves about 125 youths, and it’s based in a Brooklyn borough called Bedford-Stuyvesant – one of seven New York neighborhoods with the city’s highest incarceration rates. Many of the children hail from low-income families, and according to the organization’s mental health director, Anna Mullane, they wrestle with the trauma of their parent’s incarceration. In particular, feelings of shame or stigma are common, especially because many of them were present during the arrest. They may have witnessed domestic violence or dug incidence before the incident, and afterwards they may be thrust into unfamiliar living situations – forced to reside with a new caregiver or assume heightened family responsibilities.
Although children may seem stable on the outside, Mullane says this trauma inevitably find a way to surface, often in public or at school. Younger students may lash out aggressively at their peers or fall into tantrums they can’t control, while older students may become guarded or lose interest in their studies. And without intervention, statistics suggest that about 70 percent of them will end up in the criminal justice system themselves. With teenagers, especially, Content told me it’s important to have structured support. “I feel these kids are walking a tightrope,” she said. “If we weren’t there, they could be at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
So everyday after school, Content and her crew are there, giving these kids a safe place to hang out off the streets. At Children of Promise, students participate in a range of activities – from mentoring and reading to expressive-art projects and community service – and in keeping the organization’s comprehensive mental health approach, they have access to trained counselors and therapists. Starting in 2011, they will also be able to visit their incarcerated parent with Children of Promise staff members. “I felt it was important for the young people to have a connection with the imprisoned parent without any level of shame or embarrassment,” Content explained.
Although the program is still in its early stages, Content has already seen a lot of success, especially from a behavioral standpoint. In fact, one caregiver was so impressed by her granddaughters’ growth that she asked a school social worker to adopt the Children of Promise mental health strategy at school. “That’s what I would like to see,” said Mullane, who began collaborating with the school shortly thereafter. “The same kind of model is being used at school and in the program and at home.”
The more I learned about Children of Promise, the more impressed I became by this willingness and desire to collaborate with the greater community. In addition to their work with local schools, Content and her staff have partnered with soup kitchens, churches and shelters in Bedford-Stuyvesant – referring families to these charitable services and, in return, receiving their own referrals for Children of Promise. “It’s a reciprocal relationship,” Content told me. What’s more, the organization aims to help not only children, but also their caregivers – offering group support sessions, counseling and financial literacy classes for other family members. Conveniently, these caregivers often live nearby in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “We wanted the families to walk out their doors and have access to us,” said Content.
As Children of Promise fosters a strong relationship with the people of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Content eventually hopes to expand her program to other communities like the South Bronx or Brownsville. In the meantime, she’s committed to strengthening her current program, and she’s working diligently to help her students live without shame. To the little boy who struggled to love “someone who everyone else says is bad,” Content replied with kindness: “I told him it’s not his fault and he could still love his dad, even though he made bad choices.” It was a simple but profound answer– true and tough at the same time – and to all the other children with a similar question, Content aims to keep sharing it.