Growing up, Yasmine Arrington’s father was in and out of prison and in and out of her life. After her mother passed away when she was 13, Arrington and her two brothers were raised by their maternal grandmother.
Having dealt with these struggles from such a young age, Arrington knew firsthand the challenges that came with having an incarcerated parent.
“All too often you become marginalized or dismissed as a delinquent,” said Arrington, now 30. “Having an incarcerated father also took a toll emotionally, mentally. … (Incarcerated) parents oftentimes miss graduations. They miss birthdays.”
Despite the difficulties, Arrington became a student who was very involved in extracurricular activities. As a high school junior, she joined a leadership and social change program for teenagers called LearnServe in Washington, DC. There, she was asked, “What pisses you guys off?” The intent of the question was for students to analyze issues they saw in their communities, schools, and personal lives. Arrington chose mass incarceration and the effects of parental incarceration on children and families.
“My father has literally been in and out of jail and prison my entire life,” she said. “I began to do research, and I learned that there’s so many other people that are kind of my age experiencing what I’m experiencing.”
While applying for college scholarships with her grandmother, they noticed that there weren’t scholarships in her region specifically for teens who had incarcerated parents. Yet Arrington knew there were other students like her who had an incarcerated parent and wanted to go to college but needed financial assistance. So, in 2010, when she was 16, she created the nonprofit ScholarCHIPS – with CHIPS as an acronym for Children of Incarcerated Parents – to help young people like herself with scholarships, mentoring and a network of support.
The organization has since awarded more than $450,000 in scholarships and other aid and supported more than 80 scholars working toward their college degrees. New scholars join the program each year.
“Most of our scholars, when they apply to ScholarCHIPS, they say, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever told anyone’ that they have an incarcerated parent. So, ScholarCHIPS becomes a safe space where young people feel comfortable even divulging and sharing that information,” Arrington said.
CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Arrington about her efforts. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: What was your experience growing up as a child of an incarcerated parent?
Yasmine Arrington: My father is sort of a career criminal, and it’s a cycle that he has gone through for many years and a very, very long time. A lot of times I didn’t even know where my father was. Our communication was always sporadic. Sometimes he would reach out and then I wouldn’t hear from my dad for a long time – a year, two years, or more.
I never talked about it in school. It becomes a thing where someone can stereotype you or you can be stigmatized. So, most of the time we’re very silent about it. A lot of times it can get you down, get you depressed. Not having my father in my life for so long, I think that there was a gap in my childhood. And so when I became a teenager and a young adult, I really was looking for love in all the wrong places. I was still very insecure in a lot of ways.
Our scholars, they also have, for lack of a better term, suffered mentally, emotionally, or have had challenges. Having a parent that’s absent from the home, and particularly when you know that they’re incarcerated, a lot of questions go through your mind. Some of our scholars have close relationships with their incarcerated parents, and so when they’re able, they will go to visit their parents in prison. And that experience in and of itself is very humiliating. It is demoralizing. It becomes so layered and nuanced and complicated. It just sometimes makes our journey much more difficult.
CNN: In addition to scholarships, what are some of the other services you felt were important to provide?
Arrington: Our scholars are provided with brand-new laptops. We also have an emergency fund. When scholars have unexpected challenges that come up, for example their car may break down or they may be late on rent. Emergencies could be a number of things. We definitely step in to help.
Our scholars have the option (of) being matched with a mentor. And for those scholars who do opt in, we go through a thorough matching process. If a young person has never had someone in their family go to college, then we can match you with a mentor who has gone to college, who’s graduated, who is excited to be a mentor, who wants to walk you through this process, who wants to be a non-judgmental, supportive ear, a cheerleader, and a champion. Mentors serve as a listening ear, which is in many cases very helpful for our scholars. But also sometimes mentors become very resourceful, and they provide scholarship information that comes across their desk to their mentee, internship opportunities, lots of resources and opportunities. And ultimately with ScholarCHIPS, that’s what we want to continue to do – we are a network of support and a safety net which encapsulates within it numerous resources.
ScholarCHIPS offers community-building for our scholars, both virtually and in-person. It’s definitely a lifeline. We all are connected, particularly because of the lived and shared experience of having an incarcerated parent. So, we all sort of bond off that shared experience.
CNN: You also personally check in with the scholars throughout the year.
Arrington: The check-ins are very helpful because oftentimes we will discover a need a scholar has that we otherwise didn’t know. I ask our scholars questions about how their experience is going in college. Are there any challenges that they’re facing? Are there any current needs that they have? A lot of times we grew up where you don’t ask anybody for anything. Because if you do, you’re going to owe them something. Or if you ask somebody for help, that makes you weak. Or we’ve been accustomed to just doing things for ourselves and getting everything for ourselves for so long that a lot of us don’t even know how to ask for help.
I definitely stay in contact with scholars well after they’ve graduated. It really is a family of sorts. ScholarCHIPS (is) actually doing the real work (to) help to bridge the gap. And what happens is that not only do our scholars graduate, they gain a sense of confidence and they’re able to self-advocate for themselves once they get into their dream career. Just a little bit of support can go a very, very long way and make a difference not only in one person’s life, but in an entire family and then an entire generation.
Want to get involved? Check out the ScholarCHIPS website and see how to help.
To donate to ScholarCHIPS via GoFundMe, click here