The children were five, eight and 10 years old when their father went to prison. He was handed a lengthy sentence due to his involvement with a kidnapping and his Latin Kings affiliation. Some of the students with Children Of Promise, NYC—a non-profit organization aimed at providing holistic treatment for children of incarcerated parents—visit their moms and dads routinely. For these three, six years had passed since they last saw their father.
Upon release, *Joshua, who was just 20 when he went to prison, took the bus straight to the organization’s headquarters. The emotional family reunion brought him, a grown man, to his knees and left the boys, now 13 and 16, sobbing. The young girl’s eyes, blood-shot red from an outpouring of tears, hugged her father relentlessly.
The backstory surrounding these homecomings isn’t as tidy as when a father comes home from a tour of duty, or when a mother returns from a long business trip, and while Children Of Promise, NYC helps to bridge the communication between the child and their incarcerated parent, founder and CEO Sharon Content understands there are some who believe these parents unfortunately made a bad choice. But family is family, no matter how ugly things may sometimes get.
Content spoke with VIBE about the birth of Children Of Promise, NYC and when she realized the need was there. Although the organization is six years old, it took Content, a former Smith Barney employee, almost two years to secure funding. “It’s easier to get the second million than the first,” Content declares, because after all, who wants to help prisoners contact anyone from the outside world?
When it comes to family and the organization, Sharon Content does.
VIBE: In your past, you worked on Wall Street doing budget analysis. When did you realize you wanted a change?
Sharon Content: While I was at Smith Barney, and I loved what I was doing, I just didn’t feel fulfilled at all. I remember being in the ladies room saying to myself, ‘This is not what I want to be doing all day.’ I wanted to dedicate my skills, my time and my talents. I didn’t know where at the time. That’s when I kind of did some research and I really wanted to get into the non-profit sector. I thought my finance background would bring me more into the real estate area of working in low-income communities. I knew I wanted to target or make an impact in specific communities, and I just thought my finance background would bring me into the real estate area more, but the first job I got off Wall Street was working at the Osborne Association Alternative to Incarceration Program.
What were you hired to do?
While I was there, they hired me because they used entrepreneurship as the primary tool to teach young people skills, and these were all young people mandated by the courts to attend this program rather than go to prison. These were non-violent offenses. They were looking at prison time, but as an alternative, they were mandated to the program and they hired me because of my business background to develop small businesses to work in. Once I was there, I fell in love with working with children.
Before starting Children of Promise, NYC, you also worked at the Boys & Girls Club, correct?
When I left there, that’s when I worked with the Boys & Girls Club, but while I was there, I remember having conversations with the families of young people who were either suspended, or kicked out of the program and it was always a grandmother or mom kind of leaning over ‘Well, he’s having these problems because his mom or dad are in prison’ and it was always these whispers or they would lower their voice because there was always this stigma around incarceration. So once I left the Boys & Girls club, I said ‘I want to start my own organization.’ I knew I wanted it to be an after school program and I knew I wanted to target again, specific communities, and this was a population, I did the research, and realized that this was a population that was totally ignored and there was no program. We’re the first organization in New York City designed specifically for children of incarcerated parents.
Starting a non-profit isn’t easy-peasy. How long did it take to secure funding?
I was with the Boys & Girls Club for about four years. I didn’t return in ’05 and it took me two years after really developing the organization, so in 2007 we received our 501C3.
You worked on Wall Street and have had to deal with millions of dollars yet it still took you two years to get Children Of Promise off the ground?
As a new organization, as someone had said, “it’s easier to get the second million than the first” because the first million, you’re not only getting money, but building credibility. You’re building a reputation. You’re establishing who you are and what this organization is about. Going from a dream of, who’s this woman who has a dream and a vision?
Why should we give her a million dollars?
Exactly! Absolutely! Why should we give her $10? Why should we donate anything to this organization? So I was writing grants, trying to obtain funding, and when I’m writing grants I am now competing with the Boys and Girls Club, Girl Scouts of America, Children Aids Society. It’s my grant right with the other grants. You’re competing with after school funding. Two years in trying to obtain funding was writing grants, getting denied, writing, resubmitting. And while you’re doing that, you’re also trying to establish the relationships in the community for which you are now trying to provide services. I held breakfast every Saturday before I even had funding just trying to establish relationships with the families in the community who are of the target population. Those two years were very instrumental in trying to establish who we were, so it definitely took time.
Tell me about the cases.
There are so many cases. While all of the children are impacted by incarceration, each family varies because incarceration is usually not the only thing that’s going on or the only challenge that families are dealing with. We have families as a result of the incarceration that are now in a shelter because for many the breadwinner went to prison, so you’re dealing with that dynamic. We could never provide the resources our families need within this building. So we collaborate with soup kitchens and shelters. I had a family who came in and the father is in prison for domestic violence, and that’s very difficult for the child who loves their father but he hurt their mother, and that dynamic and what does it do? What makes our organization most unique and what I’m most proud of is that we’re a mental health clinic. That’s what puts our organization in a position to really break the cycle. The families let’s me know what the situation is, and the families really dictates to us what the needs are and we design a program around that.
Mental health is an issue that isn’t discussed within the black community. How does Children Of Promise combat that stigma?
There’s a stigma around mental health services, especially in the African-American and Latino communities. We turn to church, we don’t turn to mental health services in our healing processes, we just don’t. But what makes us really innovative is that we are providing these desperately needed mental health services because this child does need that to be able to deal with the dynamic of, your father is now in prison because he caused pain to your mother and how do we deal with that? As well as the other traumatic experiences that our young people go through.
And why do you think the cycle is so high?
The cycle is so high because I believe these young people don’t have the support to deal with the pain, the trauma, the loss, the feelings that they’re having as a result of their parents being in prison.
You also help bridge the communication between children and their incarcerated parents. Was that original?
The connection to the imprisoned parent was original. Again, the needs of the families developed as a result of the families expressing their needs, working with connecting the imprisoned parent more so with areas of involvement that concern their children. So while we have letter writing as a form of communication, we’re looking to strengthen that connection to the imprisoned parent, again, coming from the needs of the families, coming from my going into various prisons…
You go into prisons?
At least once every three months I go into prisons. I just got an invitation to go into Rikers to speak. Speaking to the prisoners is something that I enjoy doing. Not only do we work with some of their children—out of the 50 or 60 men, maybe three had children in the program—but it also allows me to speak to individuals that want to be connected to the community. They really do want to have a genuine impact on their children as well as communities that they have now left. How can we help? I enjoy going into the prisons because they’re always so appreciative of the connection, and respecting that relationship. I’m still his dad. I made these mistakes. I’m here but I love my child and their child loves them.
This is an emotional job.
But I love what I do. I genuinely do this with a level of passion and commitment. There’s no limits. There’s nothing I won’t do for this agency to ensure that the children are receiving quality service. That was the goal of the organization. Our children receive such sub-standard quality in education.
Black and Latino children?
Yes, especially in this community. I want to raise the bar, and I guess some of it is my corporate background. I wanted it to have a corporate or very professional feel to the organization, so that there’s a level of urgency when someone calls. I wanted it to have a professional culture and professional in dress code, decor, to classrooms to the way the families are treated. This is a professional organization, we are providing a service, we don’t get paid for it. These are our clients and customers and that be that culture of the organization, and that allows our families, without saying it to have a certain level of dignity and respect.
* = Name has been changed to protect subject’s identity