Transform teens who have family in prison

by POPStheclub.com, Inc. (DBA POPS the Club)
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Transform teens who have family in prison
Transform teens who have family in prison
Transform teens who have family in prison
Transform teens who have family in prison
Transform teens who have family in prison
Transform teens who have family in prison
Transform teens who have family in prison
Transform teens who have family in prison
Transform teens who have family in prison
Transform teens who have family in prison
Transform teens who have family in prison
Transform teens who have family in prison
Transform teens who have family in prison
Valeria performs at POPS Book Launch 2019
Valeria performs at POPS Book Launch 2019

Valeria is one of more than 1,000 teens across the U.S. who are treasured student members and graduates of POPS the Club.

Back in 2015, Valeria’s fears surrounding her family’s struggles with immigration drew her to visit a POPS club for the first time. In that nurturing space, she experienced transformation. 

Before joining POPS, Valeria hid her fears and anxieties from teachers, counselors, peers, even her closest friends. POPS helped her understand she was not alone and empowered her to open up. In doing so, she discovered that her personal story is her strength!

It is estimated that more than 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some time in their life. And these kids face unique difficulties. In addition to the trauma of separation, behavioral consequences can be severe. 

Children impacted by incarceration and detention are disproportionately more likely to have higher dropout rates, higher incidences of depression, ill-health, and anxiety. Parental incarceration disproportionately affects people of color and low-income populations, and a system of laws and regulations enacted to profit off the families of the incarcerated imposes still more burdens.

And yet these children have remained nearly invisible.

POPS the Club was founded to change all that, to provide support, hope and dignity for this too-often ignored population, and to amplify their voices.

After graduating from high school, Valeria stayed connected to POPS, and this year we were able to hire her to be our Volunteer Coordinator, even as she continues her college studies and holds down a second job.

One day at that second job, a customer offered Valeria a tip. She asked if instead he would consider a donation to POPS, the organization that had so critically impacted her life.

After he read about POPS’ mission, the gentleman made an extraordinarily generous donation.

It was second nature for Valeria to share the story of POPS the Club because she knows that those who have participated in POPS have experienced:

·     a reduction in depression and anxiety

·     an increased desire to graduate high school and go on to college

·    a decision to leave behind gang associations

·     trading violence for artistic expression

·     an overall optimism about life that they did not have before

Each week POPS receives calls from schools, teachers, principals and community leaders wishing to bring POPS to their schools. We're ready to launch at new sites in 2020, but we need your support as we seek to raise $50,000 to support our expansion. 

You are part of our village, and your support means so much, so we hope you'll consider a donation this holiday season! 

With deep appreciation,
Amy Friedman,
Executive Director

P.S. Your gift makes it possible for a POPS provide each club with a nutritious lunch, a trained leadership team, our self-empowerment, self-expression and community engagement curriculum, publishing opportunities, and the kinds of other support members need to grow, heal and thrive. 

John performs at the 2019 Book Launch
John performs at the 2019 Book Launch
POPS is Family!
POPS is Family!
Katherine & Karen, POPS Grads and Ambassadors
Katherine & Karen, POPS Grads and Ambassadors
Necey and Jennifer
Necey and Jennifer
Mikey performs at We Got Game Book launch
Mikey performs at We Got Game Book launch
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Karen Arellano, POPS Communications Intern
Karen Arellano, POPS Communications Intern
In late spring, I reached out to on of our POPS the Club graduates and asked if she would be interested in speaking to middle school students with incarcerated family members about her experience with POPS. "I'll write up something," Leslie said, "you'll tell me if it's something that would be meaningful for the kids."

When I read what she wrote, I knew not only would the kids appreciate her words, but I also knew how meaningful her words are for everyone who supports POPS. This is an excerpt of what she wrote:

"I joined POPS when I was a senior in high school and I’m going to be honest, I started going because of the food. Who wouldn’t want to have a good lunch rather than the lunch in the cafeteria, right? So I gotta say I tend to be a quiet person. I don’t speak much until I have gained full confidence in the people surrounding me. This time I made an exception to come and speak because I was once a student at Mark Twain Middle School, and while I was, I was going through so much, and there was no way of talking out what I felt. I was going through depression. I was diagnosed with Lupus, and I was home-schooled throughout 8th grade. I lost my memory. I don’t remember culminating. I only have a picture but a picture doesn’t bring back what I felt that day. Which brings me to the point of why we are here in this room today. We are here to express our feelings, to let everything out by writing it and allowing other people to read what we are going through. 

"Many people see us and think we're ok--that we have a beautiful life with nothing to worry about. What they don’t see is our struggles. They only see the mask we wear every day. That's how I felt for years until I joined POPS. I felt ashamed of who I was, of where I came from. I was ashamed of people knowing that my dad was deported when I was 7. I was ashamed of being the daughter of a prisoner, the daughter of an alcoholic, the granddaughter of an alcoholic. Ashamed of being the cousin of guys who spent their time in and out of cells. It’s horrible feeling you have to live afraid that one day one of them won't come home. Having to keep all of that inside is hard. 

"...I'd always act strong and pretend everything was all right, but there were days when depression overtook me. I’d lock myself in the bathroom, turn on the shower, put on some loud music and cry it all out and then come out as if nothing had happened. That’s the strategy I used before joining POPS. 

Joining POPS helped me understand that I wasn’t the only one going through a situation like that. I wasn’t the only one with a family member in prison. I was so surprised when I saw many people I knew in the club.

...There’s a saying that appearances can be deceiving. And it’s true. You may see a person as happy, but in reality they’re dying on the inside. I always tried to be the type of girl who’d be there for people when they needed a friend. ...I'm here to tell you guys that you are not alone. There's no reason to be ashamed. We have to hold our heads up high and show the world we can be somebody new."

Bringing a POPS club into a school is a gift of light and love, and as Leslie's writing makes clear, POPS allows kids to feel safe enough to speak up, to create, and to connect. That was the light and love she brought to the students at Mark Twain Middle School last May in a pilot program in collaboration with Cedars Sinai Trauma Center's Share & Care Program.

We are working to continue this partnership, and our POPS grads are leading the way. In fact, because of our donor support, POPS recently hired three of our graduates, Valeria De La Torre who has become our Volunteer Coordinator, Karen Arellano, our Communications Intern, and Victor Zapata, our Social Media Intern. With your support, we can continue to expand horizons. 

We are ever grateful to be sharing this journey with you.

With boundless gratitude,
Amy Friedman
Executive Director and Co-Founder
POPS the Club
*All participants have given permission for use of their names and photographs.
Established in 2014, POPS the Club is a 501(3) with a "Silver Level of Transparency"
on Guidestar, EIN number 46-4535915. All donations are tax-deductible.
Valeria De La Torre, POPS Volunteer Coordinator
Valeria De La Torre, POPS Volunteer Coordinator
Victor Zapata, Social Media, back in the day...
Victor Zapata, Social Media, back in the day...
Leslie, a POPS the Club grad
Leslie, a POPS the Club grad

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Leahnora's dancing tells a story
Leahnora's dancing tells a story

On Saturday, June 1, POPS the Club launched our sixth annual anthology, WE GOT GAME at  The Actors Gang Theater, where 40 POPS students representing eight Los Angeles POPS clubs read, sang, danced, displayed their artwork and played music. They performed before a sold-out and rapt audience, and as I watched the show, I kept wondering how I could somehow convey the magic of the day for those of you who weren't able to join us. 

After the show, as audience members moved out to the courtyard reception, the performers stayed behind to talk privately for a few moments. They had just bared their souls, and we all needed a breath. Johnny Rodriguez, POPS board member, performer, graduate and guide, gathered in a circle and asked, gently, "Does anyone have anything they need to say?"

Nods around the circle. People smiled. A few tears fell. "It was good," Mya said. And Bianca said, softly, "No, great." Then one of the guitarists leaned in and said, "I never got to go to a POPS club meeting. It wasn't at my school before I graduated, but I could have used this kind of community...Can someone tell me what the mission of POPS is?"  

That's the question I've become accustomed to answering, and for a split second I thought about speaking, telling this young man that  "Well, POPS stands for Pain of the Prison System, and that the mission is to heal that pain, and to amplify the voices of those who have loved ones inside..." But before I could say a word, hands flew into the air, and I remembered it is these young people's voices we all need to hear. And so I listened.

"It's a safe space," Alejandra said. Everyone nodded. 

"It's this place we can all be ourselves..." Leslie echoed her.

"We can say anything we want...," John B said.

"You know," Lakeia leaned in and said, "I always knew there were other kids around me who had parents in prison, but NO ONE ever talked about it. At POPS we can all TALK about it. It's okay to be who we are..."

"We're kind to each other," Caleb added.

"We make things better for each other," his twin brother Kylon broke in. 

"We find out we're not alone," said Amanda.

Nods and more nods. "I want to say something else," Caleb added. "Me and my brother don't have as much pain as other kids...I mean our uncle's in prison, and our cousin has a hard time, and that hurts us, but you know, what happens in POPS is that all that pain drops away, and when the pain drops away, we can let our creativity show..."

"Like the way Leahnora dances her story..." 

"And Virginia's poetry..."

"And Lucy's art..."

"Yeah," they said, "yeah, that's it," someone else chimed in, and I realized, again, for maybe the thousandth time, how truly wise and talented and tender-hearted these young people are, and when they are given a space to be nurtured and nourished, a space where judgment vanishes, their pain drops away, and they create.

Six Word Memoir
Six Word Memoir
Sebastian, John and Jose read
Sebastian, John and Jose read
In the audience...
In the audience...
Opening the show
Opening the show
Poetry in motion
Poetry in motion

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California by Janna Rae Nieto
California by Janna Rae Nieto
Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.
Have you been changed by unarmed truth and unconditional love? I know I have.

Time and time again in POPS club meetings, I have seen unarmed truth and unconditional love transform lives. I saw it again one day this winter when I visited the newest NYC POPS club at Bronx Academy of Letters in New York City.

I was telling the 20 gathered students part of POPS's origin story when a stern-faced girl raised her hand and asked me, “So what was thrilling and adventurous about visiting prison?”

Her words stopped me. Thrilling and adventurous?

Those were words I had never felt visiting anyone I love in prison. I asked why she’d chosen them. She leaned forward and said, “’Cause when I visit my dad in prisonwhen I first see him and hug him, it's thrilling...it’s an adventure….”

Later the POPS teacher sponsors and volunteers at BAL told me this young woman had never before spoken about her dad. But in that moment, with her secret out of the bag, her face softened. We all grew quiet, respectful, more tender. The whole room held her. Unconditional love.

That kind of thing happens a lot in POPS meetings. 

It is that unarmed openness, the vulnerability and resilience, we see every year in POPS students' stories, poems and artwork as the new POPS anthology takes shape.

The works in the 2019 collection, WE GOT GAMEattest to the tender-heartedness and wisdom of these young people. POPS students artfully capture moments of perfect isolation on canvas as in the painting by junior at Venice High, Janna Rae Nieto, a self-taught artist. 

And their creativity directly inspires confidence as in this excerpt from a story by Kem Blue, a junior at Lawndale High: "People tend to underestimate me. Because I’m a woman. Because I can be too kind. Because I’m too young. Because I care. Because I’m Black. I confess, I like it. I get a bit high on the look of absolute shock in their eyes when I win, when I prove them wrong." 

We are thrilled that this extraordinary labor of love, our sixth anthology, will be available later this spring, and while we've been preparing the new publication, we've also been busy revamping POPS' social media, with a major redesign on Instagram, profiling POPS students and providing prompts from the POPS curriculum. Everyone is invited to join our conversation over there, especially on #WritingWednesdays. And to share in offering this world unarmed truth and unconditional love. 

It is thanks to people like you and your unconditional love that POPS continues to thrive and grow. 

Kem Blue, POPS the Club author
Kem Blue, POPS the Club author
POPS the Club students at Bronx Academy of Letters
POPS the Club students at Bronx Academy of Letters
Postcard by POPS student in Harrisburg, PA
Postcard by POPS student in Harrisburg, PA

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Leahnora just before takeoff...
Leahnora just before takeoff...

In April of 2018, at a Venice High School POPS meeting, as we talked about the upcoming book launch for the 2018 POPS Anthology, In the Key of Love, Leahnora asked if instead of reading from her poem, "Forgotten," if she could dance. "I'm going to college in Barcelona next year," she said. "A dance college." Of course we told her she was welcome to dance, and I confess I imagined something amateur, but when she took the stage at the Coconut Grove Theater, she astonished all of us with her grace and talent. As she sailed across the stage, I knew I wanted to learn more about who this young woman was and what had brought her to POPS.

            And she told me her story. She has been studying dance since she was four years old, and in so many ways she is her mother’s daughter. Mom grew up in Guatemala and attended a prestigious arts high school in Idyllwild, California before going on to attend Bennington and ultimately joining a professional dance company. When we saw Leahnora dance, we all understand why she, at the age of 15, was accepted by the outstanding LA County High School of the Arts (LACHSA); she was one of just 24 accepted from thousands who applied.

            But despite her mom’s support, her talent, the joy of dance, there were dark forces at work in Leahnora's life. For 14 years, her dad has been in and out of her life, and his criminal activity colored much of her life's experience. “We knew where we could walk and where we couldn’t from the earliest age,” she says. “Because of gangs.” She describes herself and her friends of childhood as “troublemakers." In fourth grade, she was kicked out of her elementary school for fighting, and at the new school she attended, gang affiliations and race issues became vividly clear, separating kids from old friends. In Middle School, Leahnora was popular with kids and teachers, but she still chased trouble, and at 12 she was arrested for the first time.

            Leahnora says that “Everyone was happy for me when I was accepted at LACHSA," but she found herself in  9th grade feeling out of her comfort zones. To get to school she had to wake at 5 every day to carpool. All morning she took classes, and all afternoon she danced, and when she began to see her old friends on social media—together and having fun at the beach, in the mountains, at parties—she longed to return to her neighborhood, and to attend Venice High.

            She dropped out of LACHSA and returned to Venice for her sophomore year. At Venice, a couple of old friends introduced her to POPS. “POPS was a saving grace,” she says. Otherwise things weren’t going well. She came to school mostly to attend POPS meetings and wound up that year failing all her classes. She had to attend the Continuation School in her junior year, and she says, "I was living a lie. My friends at LACHSA thought I was being homeschooled; my friends at Venice thought I’d gone back to LACHSA.” She did manage to get straight As at the continuation school. She was inspired to return to Venice--in large measure because she wanted to return to POPS where she found understanding, support, and inspiration.

            She was moved by her friends’ experiences with POPS and especially their writings. Leahnora decided to write about her childhood, her dad, her incarcerated friends so that she took could to better understand her life’s experience. “It was hard to write. When I sent in that first poem, it was even harder, but once Mr. Danziger [the club's teacher sponsor] read it, I felt this  huge weight lift off my shoulders. POPS is the reason I went to school. POPS is the reason I graduated.”

            Leahnora turned 19 this past September, and now she is in Barcelona, in college, and dancing. Still, she writes to say she misses POPS, and she wants, with all her heart, for POPS to spread. Just last week she wrote from Barcelona with a new poem--a poem, she says, she wrote to help her understand herself even more. This one will be published in the 2019 Anthology, and we all hope Leahnora once again will dance for us! 

POPS Artists Take a Bow
POPS Artists Take a Bow
POPS Kids Onstage
POPS Kids Onstage
In the Key of Love, the 2018 Anthology
In the Key of Love, the 2018 Anthology
POPS kids graduate
POPS kids graduate
Leahnora dancing into the light
Leahnora dancing into the light
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Organization Information

POPStheclub.com, Inc. (DBA POPS the Club)

Location: Marina Del Rey, CA - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @popstheclub
Project Leader:
Amy Friedman
Los Angeles, CA United States
$22,106 raised of $50,000 goal
 
348 donations
$27,894 to go
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