In March, social worker Jody O'Bryan was shocked when a fifth-grader she works with at Ypsilanti Township's Erickson Elementary told her how appealing life in juvenile detention looked. The student had just visited her sibling at the Washtenaw County Youth Center, and she noted that the incarcerated kids had their own beds, clean clothes, good food, TV time, and books. Struck by the student's comment, O'Bryan conferred with Erickson principal Kelly Mickel about how to address the fact that juvenile detention could be enticing to some students whose home lives have been disrupted by incarceration.
"Everyone says the school-to-prison pipeline is about kids getting suspended from school," Mickel says. "But when I’m hearing this concern brought to me by my social worker based on what a student’s perception is, it’s really Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and their basic needs not being met, and then seeing a way for their basic needs to be met."
That student's story inspired Erickson and the Youth Center to launch a new initiative called the Village Project earlier this year at Erickson, 1427 Levona St. Mickel and O'Bryan called in Cheyenne Turner, community support specialist at the Washtenaw County Youth Center, to meet with them and talk to the student so she could help reframe the student's perception of incarceration. Turner proposed the idea of creating a pilot project to provide "prevention and intervention" support to the affected students in an effort to stop the cycle of "intergenerational incarceration."
"There’s a lot of research that supports (the belief) that kids with incarcerated parents or siblings usually end up in the same situation," Turner says. "They’re on that pathway to being incarcerated themselves."
The resulting pilot project involved 27 students and 12 mentors, called "success coaches," who met in both group events and one-on-one meetings for about a month until the end of the school year. Each of the students received a "Passport to Success" folder filled with worksheets that they completed with the help of their success coach.
The Village Project's goal is to help students develop the soft skills needed to achieve success, not just in school but also in life. Group events and worksheets covered topics including self-care, dealing with emotions and conflicts in public, safe and healthy relationships, public communication skills, food preparation, community beautification, personal finance, and time management.
Mickel, O'Bryan, and Erickson teachers used their personal and professional networks to identify students who had been impacted by incarceration and recruit adults who were interested in mentorship. Many of the students involved in the Village Project have a parent or sibling who's been incarcerated and have shown low academic performance, required school lunch assistance, or had disciplinary referrals. Most of the success coaches have ties to Cultivate Coffee and Tap House, Mosaic Church of Ann Arbor, or Washtenaw County Community Mental Health.
Much of the pilot project focused on building trusting, caring relationships between the students and the success coaches, and helping the students understand that they're responsible for choosing their own path. Seven of the students were involved in a pen pal component designed to directly connect them to Washtenaw County Youth Center staff so they can better understand the reality of life at the center. Future iterations of the program will include more explicit conversations about why kids shouldn't want to end up in a juvenile detention center.
The Village Project officially kicked off on May 11 with "Signing Day," when the students met their success coaches for the first time and played games and activities to get to know each other. The "Survival Skills" excursion on May 17 at Cultivate, 307 N. River St., focused on gardening, cooking, and food preparation, as well as public communication. The pilot project wrapped up with "Healthy You" on June 1 at Erickson Elementary, with demonstrations on personal self-care, grooming, and hygiene.
Charles Eagan, youth coordinator at Cultivate, joined the Village Project's planning committee and served as a success coach because he wanted to help fill gaps in resources and provide additional structure to the students. He wants to help the kids broaden their horizons by encouraging them to consider different options and assisting them in determining what's best for them.
"It’s my hope that they’re going to walk away with skills to help take care of themselves and better communicate with others and realize that there’s a lot of different options out there and it’s kind of in your hands as an individual (as to) which direction you want to go in," Eagan says.
One fourth-grader named Christiana enjoys being a part of the Village Project because she gets to hang out with her friends and her sister. She has learned how to be respectful, responsible, and successful. She shows respect by listening to others when they're talking.
"If somebody’s talking, you don’t talk to your neighbor or your friend," Christiana says. "You pay attention to the speaker."
When she gets older, she wants to work as a hairdresser and serve in the Army. Because her mom takes care of her and her siblings, Christiana says she wants "to do something for her" too.
Success coach Ryan Griffin has over 20 years of experience mentoring kids in the community, including at his barbershop, Griff's Unlimited Cutz, where he offers a discount to kids who read a book while they get a haircut. He hopes to help boost the students' confidence and help them understand what they're capable of accomplishing.
“I think those are the types of things we can do as coaches or mentors, to help these kids to believe in themselves," Griffin says. "So when that translates to test taking, when that translates to getting in front of the class and reading ... that’s ultimately the goal."
One of his mentees, who is named Tawaun, likes spending time with Griffin because "he’s fun, funny, and teaches us a lot of stuff that we need to know." He learned "when you look good, you feel good," so it's important to keep up with personal hygiene, like wearing deodorant, brushing your teeth, washing your face, and wearing clean clothes.
Ypsi native and success coach Amanda Moore says she didn't gain an understanding of the importance of community and how to foster it until she moved away after high school. She believes her attitude toward Ypsi would've been a lot different when she was growing up if she'd had the opportunity to learn more about the community when she was younger.
"I think part of what this program is offering is this opportunity for the kids to learn about their community and learn that their community is here for them, that they’re not alone, that people care about them and their success," Moore says.
She believes the students will be positively impacted by their involvement in the Village Project and then go on to positively impact the community in the future. She thinks the kids will see the value of having mentors when they were young and want to be mentors when they get older.
Although the Village Project has wrapped up for the school year, at least some of the success coaches plan to see their students over the summer, if possible. Eagan and Griffin would like to be active and play sports with their boys, while Moore would like to paint and journal with her girls.
Ultimately, the hope is to grow the pilot project into a sustainable program that can be replicated at other schools. Mickel would like to build upon this year's accomplishments to have a bigger impact on the kids who are involved and the community as a whole. She aims to enlist more organizations as community partners and more success coaches. She also hopes to involve the students' parents, especially those who have returned from incarceration.
"We’re going to find a way to do this with however many kids we can impact regardless, but the more adults that we can get involved, the more kids we’ll be able to work with," Mickel says.
Anyone who's interested in supporting or participating in the Village Project can contact Mickel at email@example.com.
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.