"Pain into purpose": Ypsi-based group offers peer supports for mothers of justice-involved youth

The SURE Moms program is a place of healing from intergenerational trauma, an informal business incubator, and sometimes a lifeline.
​​This article is part of a series about mental health in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.

This story contains a description of an incident of suicide ideation.

The official purpose of the Ypsi-based Sisters United Resilient and Empowered program, also known as SURE Moms, is to be "a peer support group for mothers of youth within the juvenile justice system." But for the moms who participate, the group is a place of healing from intergenerational trauma, an informal business incubator, and sometimes a lifeline.

SURE Moms' founder, Florence Roberson, says the group stemmed from her earlier work at the Washtenaw County Jail. Roberson says she isn't a social worker, just a community member with "a passion for helping women." She would hold Bible study sessions at the jail with local mothers who were often in and out of the criminal justice system.

Roberson says she wondered what happened to these women's families when they were in jail, and one day asked what they needed to turn their lives around. Many of them said they needed support in being a good mother, and that they hadn't had good role models when it came to mothering.

"There's a trend that when mothers are incarcerated, their children are also in detention or involved with the courts. What these moms needed was someone to help them break that chain," Roberson says. 
SURE Moms' founder Florence Roberson.
She says she often hears from women whose teenage sons are hitting them because that's what they saw their fathers do.

"They don't even want to do it, but they're so angry, and that's the only way to handle it they've ever seen," she says. "And girls allow them to hit them, because they've seen their mother allow someone to do it. The whole family is sitting there in trauma. What we're doing is showing a mom there is a way out, not just for you but for your family."

After hearing about the need for parenting classes, Roberson approached Derrick Jackson, director of community engagement at the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office, with the idea of starting a parenting program for women in the community. He encouraged her to do so. It seemed like a good time since several young men had been murdered in recent months, Roberson says. She reached out to some of the mothers of those young men and other moms she thought would benefit from the program.

During the first meeting, she told the participants that it was their program and they should name it. That's when the SURE Moms name came into being. 

"We wanted to make sure that every woman that came into that group would feel that though they might not be sisters by blood, they are by situation, and they stand together united," Roberson says. 
A SURE Moms meeting.
That was seven years ago. A group of women continues to meet at the sheriff's office each Wednesday for dinner and conversation. Roberson says the group is literally life-saving for some participants.

"In one meeting, I was sitting next to one lady who was not saying anything, and suddenly I got a feeling," she says. "I asked her if she was thinking of killing herself. She told me, 'I plan on doing it when I leave here. I'm going to kill me and my kid. I am so tired. I can't do this anymore.'"

Roberson asked the woman to give her and the other SURE Moms a chance to help. 

"I still think about what would have happened if I hadn't come to the meeting that night," Roberson says. "She was thinking there was nothing out there to help her, and she could have taken her life and the life of her kids."
SURE Moms' Denise Wieck.
Denise Wieck is a SURE Mom who has launched her own gun safety nonprofit, called Lock It For Everyone (LIFE). She was motivated to take action after her son was accidentally shot by his best friend. He survived, but lost an eye and had to have part of his skull removed.

"I got started because of SURE Moms," Wieck says. "Florence saw my son and I were passionate about gun violence and making sure people take care of their guns properly."

Wieck says her group's long-term goal is to "get youth off the streets"; develop a program to teach life skills, anger management, and problem solving; and get kids invested in a better future. 

Patricia Davis, who is currently serving as an intern for SURE Moms, remembers a friend inviting her to one of the group's earliest meetings. She didn't have a child in the justice system, but she wanted support from other moms in launching her own nonprofit. 
SURE Moms intern Patricia Davis.
Once she began attending the group regularly, she also realized she had plenty of unexamined trauma from childhood abuse and three years in an abusive domestic relationship.

"One thing we all had in common was that we came from abusive relationships," Davis says. "I started hearing women's stories about the things they've been through. And then I realized that things I thought I'd forgotten about or forgiven, I had really just suppressed. SURE Moms is a place I can open up, scream, cry, yell, and cuss. I can open up, be transparent and raw. It's a place where I can turn my pain into purpose."

Davis is also doing that through the nonprofit, Free In Deed, that she launched with support from other SURE Moms. The organization's mission includes talent development and teaching young women about their self-worth to prevent them from succumbing to the abuse Davis suffered.

"A lot of these mothers had been through so much trauma, and they couldn't even help themselves," Roberson says. "This is somewhere they could come and discuss and see that you're not the only one. Pat [Davis] and other moms, they came in with all of that pain and everything, but now they're helping other mothers."

More information about SURE Moms is available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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