Some kids join the school band and develop a lifelong love of music. Other young people see their parents arrested and face issues that distract them from school and other pursuits.
For the second group of young people Shirley Cochran organized Reading and Counting to Success PLUS (RACS+), an offshoot of her larger organization, Motherly Intercession, which helps support children of incarcerated parents.
“(Many kids) haven’t seen their parents – mother or father – in weeks,” says Cochran. “Many have seen their parents arrested … it’s traumatic.”
Unsurprisingly, those kids don’t always have the best grades and can have a host of mental and emotional problems that, too often, result in antisocial behavior, dropping out, or turning to crime, research shows.
Cochran wants to make a difference in their lives, offer them hope and break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration.
RACS+ offers children homework assistance and tutoring in reading, math, and computer technology, catering to their emotional, social and mental well-being. It serves children between the ages of 6 and 18.
The program starts with an evaluation of each child to understand his or her unique challenges, because even siblings have different experiences. After that, the results are discussed with the child’s caregiver, who uses the information to develop a tailored program.
In one case Cochran says a kindergartener had been held back from entering first grade. After talking to him, they realized he was having trouble hearing because of shunts in his ear. The program got him some special headphones, which are royal blue to separate them from those the other kids use.
Usually, the young people need help with math and literacy and tutors for their homework. Often times, they are at least a full year behind in reading skills. A major goal is to get them caught up so they are reading at their grade level to reach their full potential.
The results are impressive. In math, 79 percent of RACS+ students rise to at least the national average, and 73 percent do so in reading.
The emotional and mental issues are more complicated. Children as young as grade school have talked about wanting to kill themselves. In one case, Cochran says a 14-year-old girl had to be taken to the hospital for eating a large pushpin.
When these types of problems arise her organization does what it can to help immediately and provides a list of referrals to make sure the kids get all the help they need.
The help is year-round. RACS+ doesn’t shut down for the summer. Academic pursuits are still a major part of it, but there are also other activities and field trips to keep the children occupied during their vacation. That often requires additional help.
In the past two years, RACS+ has hired some of the students, ages 14-18, who are in the program, to work for the summer. Last year they hired eight full-time. This year two returned and six more were hired. Currently, they work only in the summer, but Cochran is looking into expanding the program to include the regular school year.
She says she holds these young hires to the same level of accountability as would be expected of them in corporate America. However, given they are examples to younger children in the program, and they came from RACS+ own ranks, she might well expect more of them.
Community support also plays a big role in the success of RACS+.
Dinners are provided at a discount by Sandy’s Elegant Catering.
One couple donated a field trip this year so the kids could see the Black Panther superhero film, snacks included. Cochran says she was “bobbing and weaving” during the climatic fight scenes, despite not being much of a fan of action movies.
Another local citizen donated a small library of books based on the Black Panther comics that inspired the film.
Donations to RACS+ are always appreciated. Like other nonprofits, it relies on community support. Right now it has capacity for 50 kids, divided into two groups of 25. The groups alternate between Monday and Wednesday and Tuesday and Thursday attendance.
While donations are great, it is the program’s tutors who really make the difference. A handful come from Mott Community College, students looking for extra credit, but most are from the community.
One volunteer is Ellen Peter, who began working at RACS+ in 2016. She helps the kids with reading and math and has developed many techniques to motivate them. One she uses is trading off reading with early readers. She’ll read one page, and they’ll read the next.
Peter encourages more people to volunteer, but believes they don’t for a number of reasons. They might be intimidated and fear they won’t be able to help with the academics, especially with math. That isn’t a problem, she says, because there is system in place to help them learn.
Others may expect the kids to be troublemakers. That’s not the case, she says. “They’re really nice kids. I like working with them.”
These young people are the hidden victims when their parents are incarcerated. They receive little support from the judicial system, and there is often a lack of sympathy and help from others. As a result, kids left behind not only suffer, but are too often forgotten.
Shirley Cochran did not forget them. With RACS+ and Motherly Intercessions she is helping them ease their lives and build better ones in the future.