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Yasmine Arrington, the 21-year-old founder of Scholar Children of Incarcerated Parents, or ScholarCHIPS, was 3 years old when her father went to prison and a high school student when she founded the philanthropic program that helps children of incarcerated parents go to college.
When, Washington, DC, native, Yasmine Arrington, the 21-year-old founder of Scholar Children of Incarcerated Parents, or ScholarCHIPS, was 3 years old, her father went to prison. For the next decade-plus, he was in and out of lockup and Arrington lost touch with him.
His absence, she says, was a little discussed fact of life within her household.
But out of sight does not necessarily mean out of mind, and when Arrington was a teenager, she began to think about the personal and political implications of law, order and criminal justice. The impetus for this interest, she says, came from mentors she met through LearnServe International.
“LearnServe was an after-school program for high school sophomores and juniors who were identified as leaders in their schools and who were also interested in social change,” Arrington told Truthout. “We met professionals who worked in different nonprofits. Through them, I realized the impact one individual can have. I saw the passion these individuals put into their work and it lit a fire under me.”
Later, when LearnServe asked participants to identify an unmet need in their community and then formulate an action plan, including a mission statement and an organizational strategy to address it, Arrington’s passion ignited.
“Children of incarcerated parents usually don’t talk about this aspect of their lives for fear of being judged or outcasted,” she said. Nonetheless, the impact of losing a parent to the criminal justice system is enormous. In fact, when Arrington began researching the issue, she discovered a number of startling facts: Not only does the United States have the highest incarceration rate in the world – more than 2.3 million men and women are in jails and prisons – but nearly two-thirds of them are parents, a reality that touches a full 2 percent of US children.
Arrington also discovered other sobering data. According to researchers at Cornell University, “Children with an incarcerated parent are at increased risk for abuse of drugs and alcohol, engaging in anti-social behavior, dropping out of school, or experiencing a decline in school work.” What’s more, studies have found higher truancy rates and heightened aggression and disruptive behaviors among this population.
Arrington was horrified by these facts, and as she thought about what she wanted to create, she came up with the idea for ScholarCHIPS. The plan? To offer both social and emotional support to her peers and create a college scholarship specifically for children of incarcerated parents living in DC, Maryland and Virginia.
Since its founding in October 2010, ScholarCHIPS has raised more than $50,000 and has provided small grants to 18 students – some have received $250 for books and others have received $2,500 toward tuition and fees. They attend a wide range of universities and colleges including Bowling Green State, Bucknell, Prince George’s Community College, Penn State, Trinity, and Virginia State University.
Armonte Butler is one of the beneficiaries. A sophomore at Sewanee: The University of the South, in Tennessee, Butler is majoring in global studies and minoring in Spanish and gender studies. “I get a full-tuition merit and leadership scholarship from the Posse Foundation,” he told Truthout. “But I still needed money for books.” A $250 a year grant from ScholarCHIPS makes a huge difference, he says, because his family is still paying off the lawyer who represented his father when he was arrested in July 2012. “Books cost a lot of money and ScholarCHIPS has greatly assisted me with not worrying about that,” he wrote in an email.
Raynna A. Nkwanyuo, a health sciences major at Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, Virginia, has received an annual award of $2,500 from ScholarCHIPS for the past three years. “An inmate that my mom served time with in 2012 told me about ScholarCHIPS,” she said. “I had no idea that scholarships existed for people in my predicament.” She says that the help has been invaluable. “Without this scholarship, I would be taking more money in loans for my undergraduate studies. This scholarship has created easier access and the opportunity to receive an education at a remarkable four-year institution.”
That said, Nkwanyuo admits that the road between her mother’s incarceration and her first day of college was full of obstacles and roadblocks. “I missed the first day of my junior year of high school, August 29, 2010, to escort my mom to Federal Prison Bureau Camp,” she says. “It was the most traumatizing day in my life. Not only did the event affect my academics, it affected my relationships with others. I felt as though no one understood me, as if I was the only one in this situation.”
Although she says she had “an epiphany” before graduating from high school that prompted her to take charge of her life, like Butler, she credits Arrington with helping her maintain her focus while at ODU. “I have received a tremendous amount of support from Yasmine,” she gushes. “She has not only served as a mentor to me, but is a friend and sister. She frequently checks in with me. She is truly one of the most selfless individuals I have ever met.”
For her part, Arrington is quick to mention that the development of ScholarCHIPS was something of a group effort. “I started the organization with three adults who inspired me and supported me. One was my Girl Scout leader. Another was my LearnServe cohort leader and a third was a friend of his who worked in the nonprofit sector. After I presented ScholarCHIPS at a community fair in DC, LearnServe awarded me a $1,000 seed grant to begin.”
In addition, reporter Petula Dvorak of The Washington Post heard Arrington talk about ScholarCHIPS and wrote a column about the project in December 2010. The article generated both financial and in-kind contributions, including the design of a logo by a DC design firm.
“From then on, we’ve raised money from individuals and through special events,” Arrington said. “Our goal is to provide scholarship awards to recipients for the full four years, as long as they maintain a 2.5 GPA.”
Still, financial assistance is just one of the benefits grantees get from ScholarCHIPS.
Award recipients meet face to face three times a year, in the summer after scholars are selected, over Thanksgiving weekend and during the winter break, to discuss their lives, their struggles as students and their relationships with family. List serves and email are used in between.
“Everyone has a different story,” Arrington said. “One lady has a father on death row. Another has two parents serving life sentences. We communicate with one another regularly and talk about all kinds of things. Our board members serve as mentors, as well.”
Indeed, Arrington says that the tightly knit group provides a forum for conversations that rarely happen in other venues. One woman, she says, is using ScholarCHIPS as a springboard to decide whether to visit her mother in prison. Someone else is worrying about what will happen now that his father is out on parole. Others talk about the difficulties they’re having in forgiving a parent for being absent or for doing something they find reprehensible.
It’s heavy stuff.
Arrington, too, has had her struggles. “I initially met my paternal grandmother when I was 14 and she asked me if she could give my phone number to my dad. I was a freshman in high school. My mom had just died and I was living with my other grandmother and my two younger brothers. I said, ‘okay,’ and not long after that my dad got in touch with me. I started listening to him. He has this great sense of humor which helped us to bond.”
Calls from jail, however, were costly and, consequently, infrequent. Instead, the two exchanged letters. “For the next three or four years, we wrote back and forth and my dad would draw me pictures,” she recalls. They finally met in person when Arrington was 16.
Tony Arrington now lives with family in North Carolina, not far from Elon University where Yasmine attends school. The two are in regular touch.
Still, Arrington admits that she sometimes gets overwhelmed by the enormity of the tasks she’s undertaken: Getting to know her dad, running a growing nonprofit organization, finishing college, and making plans for her future and the future of ScholarCHIPS.
For a moment, she sounds exhausted.
At the same time, Arrington is not someone who is easily deterred and after just a few minutes in her company it’s obvious that she thinks big.
Her immediate personal goal? After graduating from Elon in June 2015, she hopes to enroll in a graduate program in divinity.
“I want ScholarCHIPS to become a national organization that will be able to service students and young people in every state who have at least one parent inside,” Arrington said. “I envision having an actual office building with space for after-school tutoring, where older students can help younger students with SAT and ACT prep, college applications and financial aid forms. I would like to see if we can organize trips to prison to make it easier for children to see their parents. And I believe there is room for advocacy, for ScholarCHIPS to have a voice in policy making.”
Right now, though, she has papers to write and exams to study for. But before we end our phone interview she wants me to know that she credits God for the personal blessings she has received, from numerous awards and scholarships to an invitation to a White House panel on incarceration’s impact.