Zakiya Esper attended Generation Progress’ criminal justice roundtable in Columbia, South Carolina this past fall. To read the recommendations stemming from that roundtable, click here. This piece is part of a series of profiles on young leaders moving the needle on criminal justice reform.
Before becoming the founder of Sowing Seeds into the Midlands, Zakiya Esper always knew she wanted to help people, but didn’t know in what capacity.
Tracing the roots of her current work back to when she took a semester off from school at 19 years old to work at Charleston’s Florence Crittenton Home, an organization that provides help and support to pregnant teenagers, Esper recalls being as much a peer as a mentor to the women she worked with.
“I got the opportunity to work with at-risk youth because of the fact that I was sort of still an at-risk youth myself,” Esper says. “That six months changed my life. [At Florence Crittenton], I gained my heart to help, in particular young kids.”
As an entity, the Florence Crittenton Home seeks to help struggling pregnant women and mothers ranging from ages 10 to 21. According to the organization’s 2013 report, a total of 5,597 South Carolina teens gave birth in 2012, for a rate of 15 teens giving birth each day.
“They were just regular kids,” Esper says. “They were a lot like me, with just really terrible circumstances.”
Esper went on to graduate from the College of Charleston in 2010, continuing to work at Florence Crittenton for a total of seven years, and joining the Department of Juvenile Justice of Charleston County as a Probation Officer.
“I walked in and on my second day, and I got 40 cases,” Esper says. “And before I left there, I was managing over 98 kids at a time who I was supposed monthly to make sure they were cooperating with their court orders.”
The math of seeing more than three kids each day in a month-long period was “impossible,” according to Esper. The existing legal barriers on her role as a probation officer also made forging connections with the kids she worked with a challenge.
“As a probation officer, you’re like a cop.” Esper says.
By law, Esper was required to physically meet with all of the youth on her caseload monthly. But for her what was just as frustrating was a lack of necessary resources available in Charleston County, which has the second-highest rate of juveniles on probation in South Carolina.
“In the four years that I worked at the Department of Juvenile Justice as a Probation Officer … I was never able to successfully connect a youth with a mentor. In four years. Hundreds of kids. And I never got one of them a mentor because they simply were not available,” Esper says.
While the bigger, state-sponsored mentoring programs always had a waiting list, some of the smaller available mentoring programs were not reputable, with potential mentors lacking either background checks or training.
When Esper transferred to Columbia, the lack of mentoring resources remained the same.
“If the kids trust me, and their parents trust me, and I send them away with someone, I need to know that the person is properly trained, and they’re not going to make the wrong impression on these kids.” Esper says. “So I decided I was going to go out and help create the resources.”
When starting Sowing Seeds into the Midlands, Esper expected to run into issues differentiating her budding organization from existing programs for troubled youth. But seeing the scarcity of existing programs from working in the non-profit world, especially for providing mentors, was staggering.
“I think that’s the thing. I think everybody assumes that somebody’s [already] doing it,” Esper says. “It’s really bizarre, because [providing mentors] seems like a simple enough thing … People get really excited about what I’m doing, which I appreciate … but I’m not doing anything innovative.”
The mentors Sowing Seeds seeks to provide in many ways are as much friends as they are role models, undergoing extensive training. In addition to mentoring, Sowing Seeds will offer counseling, tutoring, and life skills development.
“I love what I’m doing. It makes my heart sing,” Esper says. “It’s probably the most fun I have, because you get to hang out with 15 to 20 teenagers, and they’re hilarious…and watching that light bulb go off—it’s gratifying.”
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