Former S.C. probation officer starts nonprofit to mentor troubled teens in Midlands
A former South Carolina probation officer is using her experience to launch a nonprofit to mentor troubled teens in the Midlands. Zakiya Esper founded Sowing Seeds into the Midlands with a vision of providing youth services to harness the talent and skills of young people who are struggling to deal with problems at home, in school and out in the community.
“The youth of the Midlands are underserved in so many ways. These teens need reliable and appropriately trained adults to step up and be available to help them navigate the tough issues that they face on a daily basis,” Esper said. “That’s what Seeds is aiming to do, to prepare mentors who are willing to stand in the gap to be present for the youth of the Midlands.”
Esper began work with disadvantaged youth at the Florence Crittenton Home in Charleston when she was 19-years-old. The organization offers resources to pregnant teenager.
She then spent the past three years working as a probation officer for the Department of Juvenile Justice. Esper saw hundreds of delinquent teens during her tenure who were in and out of the juvenile court system and who had no direction and a lack of access to services to prevent them from becoming repeat offenders.
Esper, a 2010 graduate of the College of Charleston, said she thought it was necessary to put her nonprofit experience and career in the juvenile justice field to better use outside the court system. Esper was driven to develop a program that could guide youth offenders away from a life of crime and become productive members of their community.
“As a probation officer, I met kids who weren’t being fed, weren’t being watered, who had no idea what it was like to be nurtured,” Esper said. “I believe that all children can live a positive and productive life. They need certain circumstances to grow.”
Sowing Seeds focuses on teens between the ages of 13 and 18 and aims to connect them with adult volunteers who will help them discover their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. Participants will get access to counseling, mentoring, tutoring, prepping for a GED prep and developing life skills. Esper said she hopes to serve more than 30,000 teens and their families throughout the Midlands.
“They need that one adult that’s just for them and offers a safe place” she said. “I think that’s vital.”
The first phase of Sowing Seeds to be launched is the mentoring program. A mentor will be paired with a teen for one year. They will meet with the child at least once a month and call weekly. Esper said six out of the 12 months will consist of required community service outings supporting local causes, including the Susan G. Komen breast cancer walk, the ALS walk and Habitat for Humanity. The program will start in January.
The next two phases include counseling and tutoring/GED prep classes. Students referred from local schools, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Social Services will be able to speak to a licensed professional counselor for individual and family therapy. Services will be conducted in-home to provide familiar environments to the kids.
“I found that my clients who participate with in-home family services had more success because they were in their domain,” Esper said.
Tutoring and GED prep work will be curriculum-based and will provide one-on-one attention to students, something Esper said she found to be lacking in court-ordered services.
“Once you’re out of the regular school track, you’re allowed to blow in the wind,” Esper said. “There was not a lot of accountability in the program.”
Esper has kicked off a fundraising campaign to help fund the first phase of the organization’s goals. Her goal is to raise $5,000 to fund background checks and professional training for mentors, print materials, marketing, and other administrative, legal and professional fees.
“Seeds is the kind of program that keeps kids out of the juvenile justice system, that keeps kids from vandalizing your homes and cars,” Esper said. “It helps your kids have a safe place outside of family. And I think it’s something missing from our community.”
Sowing Seeds into the Midlands is collecting $28 donations by Satruday, which is also Esper’s birthday, or a donation of any amount by Dec. 31. Donations can be submitted online at the Sowing Seeds website.