CPNYC x KidsMates
Today, KidsMates speaks with Sharon Content about the important mental health challenges facing children of incarcerated parents. In 2006, Sharon founded Children of Promise, NYC (CPNYC) to “dismantle the stigma and heal the trauma plaguing Black and Brown's communities impacted by mass incarceration.” Sharon is no stranger to these issues, as she personally supported an incarcerated family member early in her life. In addition to that experience, Sharon draws on a special set of skills that have proven invaluable. After graduating from Howard University, Sharon spent her first few years on Wall Street as a budget analyst. She transitioned to the nonprofit sector, working with groups like the Osborne Association and the Boys and Girls Club of America. Her financial skills helped these organizations allocate resources in uncharted areas like mental health. Eventually, Sharon decided that a holistic and dedicated approach was required, and CPNYC was born. Today, unlike traditional after-school and summer programs, the organization offers programs that are integrated with mental health services at every stage. Children of Promise has impacted the lives of over 1,500 children and their families.
During our interview, I’ll ask Sharon about a variety of specific topics affecting children of incarcerated parents, including mental health challenges, as well as seek her general advice about surviving parental incarceration. Sharon’s clearly an expert on so much, and we are honored to have her as our guest. Without further delay, please welcome my guest, Ms. Sharon Content!
Joshua: Hi, Sharon. Thanks for joining KidsMates today. I hope you’re doing well. Why don’t you start by telling our followers about Children of Promise, NYC, and how it started?
Sharon: Hi, Joshua. I’m doing well. Thank you for asking. Where should I begin… After a successful career working on Wall Street, I went to work in the nonprofit space in youth development because I came to a point where I wanted my work to mean something. I wanted to uplift and break the barriers that held young people back like racism and poverty. What I saw was that poverty closes a person’s eyes to opportunity. I started out with Osborne as the Director of the Legit Program where I would convince judges to send youth to entrepreneurship programs instead of jail. The more I worked with these young people, I realized they needed more than just a typical after-school program. They needed robust support. I saw this, especially in the underserved communities I was working with. I noticed a trend of young people being profoundly impacted by cycles of mass incarceration. So I started Children of Promise, NYC to serve children impacted by parental incarceration. In order to serve this community, I sought to support the mental health needs of parents and children with an incarcerated family member and to create a safe space where these children can thrive. Whether that meant providing mentors, licensed clinicians, and parent engagement programs centered on stress management or supporting parents who are reentering communities following incarceration, CPNYC has fought on the front lines as a safety net for families that fall in between the gaps of the criminal justice system for the past 13 years.
Joshua: Amazing. Your dedication and insights into the problems facing families affected by incarceration are remarkable. What is the most important thing you have done in the last year to help children or families facing incarceration?
Sharon: In 2021, we successfully opened CPNYC’s second location in the South Bronx to support borough youth impacted by family member incarceration. This meant we would be able to double the number of young people we could serve. Prior to the South Bronx’s site opening, we were able to serve 350 youth at our Brooklyn site. We also pivoted the organization during the pandemic to provide for families outside of the CPNYC community by establishing CPNYC Cares, a new arm of CPNYC that provided $50,000 in gift cards to meet the needs of community members and we served as a New York City Department of Education Learning Bridge site supporting any student lacking technology to attend remote classes. CPNYC also provided remote mental health resources and in-person summer programming to counter learning loss.
Joshua: Most businesses are shrinking during the pandemic, but you are expanding. That’s amazing. Is there anything people misunderstand about your work or projects that you would like them to know?
Sharon: I think many people don’t understand that what we do at CPNYC is not a typical after-school program. It’s not just a place, for example, where kids come to play sports and go home. We are partnering with young people to overcome trauma, stigma, and shame associated with having a parent incarcerated. We are breaking down barriers to access licensed mental health services in Black and Brown communities and changing perceptions around mental health in these communities by embedding it in community life. We are addressing the root causes of mass incarceration and partnering with young people to own their stories and use their voices to become change agents in their lives as well as their communities. This is not your typical after-school program. We provide trauma-informed therapy, youth development, academic enrichment (includes after-school programming, Saturday Resource Center, summer day camp), mentorship, professional and life skills coaching, conflict resolution, and de-escalation training, in addition to recreational programs. We offer this programming while simultaneously speaking out against root causes that affect the communities we serve, including systemic racism, poverty, and bias in our nation’s criminal justice system.
Joshua: With everything you’ve seen over the last 13 years, what observations can you share about children or families dealing with incarceration?
Sharon: This is an issue of epidemic proportions. If having an incarcerated parent was classified as a chronic health condition, it would be the second most prevalent chronic condition in the U.S. for children under the age of 18 – just behind asthma. Current estimates differ, but some statistics suggest, on average, as many as 7% of children in the U.S. have had a parent incarcerated. Over 5 million children at some time will have a parent incarcerated. Children of incarcerated parents are called the “hidden victims” of mass incarceration because they are left to bear the brunt of the stigma and shame of having a parent in prison or jail. Because of this, many children may suffer from depression and other negative psychological effects.
Mental health services are the key to supporting these children and impacted communities and addressing so many issues in and around criminal justice. Making counseling and receiving care is bigger than breaking the cycle of incarceration itself. A lot of the people we serve are currently impoverished and that itself is traumatic, dealing with personal family issues is traumatic and surviving a global pandemic for nearly two years is traumatic. All of those issues have the potential to have detrimental impacts on our children for years and funnel them to become justice-involved. That’s why we have clinical staff in every aspect of our program, they help load the bus for field trips, and when playing basketball, they support our children in all facets.
Joshua: You’re right, this is a health epidemic bigger than almost anything children face. Do you have any advice for children coping with parental incarceration?
Sharon: You are not alone. Be open to mental health services and receive help from licensed specialists. You do not have to suffer alone or in silence, if you are struggling with mental health needs. The stigma around mental health care can really harm a child, family, or incarcerated parent irreparably.
Joshua: I appreciate how open you are about mental health issues. The way you explain it, mental health is no different from physical health. We take vitamins and exercise (maybe not enough!), so why treat mental health differently. I’m wondering what or who most influenced your thoughts on the topic of mental health?
Sharon: The young people I first encountered when working at Osborne. They helped me to see that there was really a gap in addressing “at-risk” youth. And that was the mental component. It’s not enough to just have programs so we can say, at least the kids are not on the street. There are deep traumas that need to be addressed if we are going to disrupt generational cycles of poverty and incarceration.
Joshua: So true, and so well said. Last question from me as we wrap up our time together. If you were giving one last piece of advice about how to make a difference, what would you say?
Sharon: There is power in the community. Through launching CPNYC and working with other community-based organizations and community members, I recognized the importance of collaboration and bringing in others who believe in the vision. Collaboration and partnering were always a part of the model. CPNYC can’t provide for every need so we need other CBOs to succeed. We also get many referrals from other community-based organizations. I learned the importance of networks and building a community. [CBOs are “community-based organizations.]
I would also say to not give up when you hear “no”. You have to build resilience and part of that is not taking no for an answer. Sometimes you have to figure out how to ask the question the right way to get to "yes" or ask another person.
Joshua: I couldn’t agree with you more. We are stronger together than we are apart and “no” can sometimes mean “not now” instead of “not ever.” I really learned so much from you today, and I think our followers have as well. Thank you for sharing.
For more information about Ms. Content or Children of Promise NYC, please check out www.cpnyc.org