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#OTGYpsi: Ypsilanti-based group offers peer supports for mothers of justice-involved youth


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Sarah Rigg's Feature Article: "Pain into purpose": Ypsi-based group offers peer supports for mothers of justice-involved youth



Josh Hakala: You are listening to 89 one WEMU. I'm Josh Hakala, and this is On the Ground Ypsi. It's a program intended to bring you the stories of the Ypsilanti community. And we bring you On the Ground Ypsi in partnership with the reporting team at Concentrate Media. Today, we will get to know the organization Sisters United, Resilient and Empowered, also known as SURE Moms. And they are defined as a peer support group for mothers of youth within the juvenile justice system. Today, I'm joined by Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale, whose online news site is reporting this week on SURE Moms. Rylee, thanks for being with us.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Josh.

Josh Hakala: All right. And Sarah Rigg worked on this particular story. What drew your team to want to write about the SURE Moms?

Rylee Barnsdale: Yeah. Sarah's article goes really deep into SURE Moms, this support group for women--mothers--who either have encountered the justice system themselves or their families, their children--have. And it's hard enough to be a parent just on your own, But when you, your spouse, even your kids have been or are currently incarcerated, there are so many additional supports that you require that aren't always the easiest to find or even may not even be available at all. What SURE does is provides that space each week for these mothers to come together and feel a little bit less alone, while also, you know, getting that access to resources that they may not have known were even available to them in the first place.

Josh Hakala: And how did it get started?

Rylee Barnsdale: So, the group originally started when founder Florence Roberson was visiting the county jail, holding a Bible study with mothers that were often in and out of the criminal justice system. And she really saw this need for support for this group of people that can oftentimes be overlooked when it comes to providing those supports, you know, financially or even just, you know, having someone to talk to about the things that you're struggling with.

Josh Hakala: And joining us in the studio is the founder of SURE Moms, Florence Roberson. One might assume that someone that starts an organization like this would have a background in social work or maybe a similar field, but that doesn't appear to be the case with you. How did you come to start SURE Moms? And what was the moment that you realized that you could make a difference?

Florence Roberson: For me, I think it's passion. And so, for me, I was, you know, doing the Bible study at the Washtenaw County Jail. And I just saw these mothers and I, you know, got to meet with them, talk with them, and just found out what was going on with them. Because mothers that if you're in jail, you know, and sometimes maybe you're in more than once, my whole mind went to what's happening to your home life, you know, what's happening with your family, especially your children if you're in and out. And so, getting a chance to talk to these mothers, you know, finding out that these mothers were struggling not just with being in and out, they were struggling with being mothers at times because some of these women never had mothers to teach them how to be a mother. And these mothers were also dealing with their own traumas. And so, these mothers just needed support. And I just felt it was something that I could help with, you know? And so, I'm so thankful for the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office, Sheriff Clayton and Derrick Jackson, for allowing me to start this program to be able to help these women. And it has been probably eight years, and it's still very effective right now in our community and even more so right now, because, right now, we're having a lot of violence with juveniles. And so, we need to have that extra support out there for the mothers.

Josh Hakala: Now, the group is called Sisters United, Resilient and Empowered. The name kind of says it all about your mission statement. How does the organization unite and empower women and make them resilient?

Florence Roberson: Well, for one thing, these mothers come into the group. And a lot of them sometimes are referred through juvenile court. And so, when these mothers come into our group, they are broken. They just don't know what to do. They're overwhelmed by the fact that their child is in the juvenile justice system, and then they're still dealing with other struggles. And so, when they come into the group, the first thing I want to target on is what is support look like to you. A lot of times, we have programs that offer support, but we're going by what we think they need, instead of asking families what do they need.

Josh Hakala: What are the some of the challenges that mothers experience when they have children in the juvenile justice system, like maybe even day-to-day challenges, or just overall?

Florence Roberson: Just think about this. You have a child that's in and out of trouble. You try to hold down a job, but half the time, you're getting a call back to the school saying that you need to come up for your child. And then so, some of these mothers have lost their jobs, just trying to be there for their child and then try to work a job. All jobs don't understand that when children are in this type of situation, it's hard for that mother because that mother has to take off from her job to go deal with the schools and with the courts. And so, a lot of times these mothers often feel very alone when they're trying to navigate through the juvenile justice system and just with the community. And so, they just need an advocate, somebody that can be there with them. Support for these mothers, to me, is everything. And people don't realize what that means because I had a mother on my first two meetings who came into my group who was just so frustrated with how things were going and felt so helpless. I was looking at her, and I just felt something very heavy about her. I asked her, I said, "Are you thinking about committing suicide?" And this woman said to me, "Yes, I was going to do that tonight with my kids." And I begged her. I said, "Please don't do this. Let me support you." This was eight years ago. This woman is still in our group. And this woman right now is assisting me, going with me, speaking to different groups about what support looks like.

Josh Hakala: That's incredible. And that could have changed so many lives. And then, you stepped in and made that intervention. And tell me a little bit about the goal. Some of the goals is to break the cycle of trauma that's often passed down to the children. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Florence Roberson: Yes. One thing about our group: we've had social workers come in and meet with our mothers. We have law enforcement. They come in and work with our mothers. And sometimes, it's just peer support, because when these women, sometimes, especially if they're court ordered to come into the group, they're mad. They don't want to come in until they get there and find out, "Wait a minute! Your story's just like my story!" And then I began to pull strength from each other. And then, you know, that's our main focus right now. It's how we empower each other. And empowerment to us is helping these mothers, for me, is making helping these mothers find their gift, because a lot of these mothers, just because they go through struggles, because they go through trauma, they have no idea what's in them or what gifts they have. And so, in the process of our group, through the years, we had two moms who started their own nonprofit. We were able to get funds for two mothers to go to an entrepreneur school. And we have another mother who just let us know that, this past Wednesday, her book is done, and it is now on Amazon. So, these women, when they come in here, they feel no hope. It's just being around what other women they can show them there is something in you. And we just have to help them, you know, get past the trauma and the fear and the worry and sometimes allow them to focus on them.

Josh Hakala: You're listening On the Ground Ypsi on WEMU. I'm joined by Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale and the founder of SURE Moms, Florence Roberson. And I want to talk a little bit about some of those programs, like not only projects that impact them that they're passionate about, you know, one of them is gun safety. And it's like your group has splintered off into, like, spinoffs, if you will, that are making a difference in the community. Can you talk a little bit about some of those programs?

Florence Roberson: Yes. We have one mother who came in. Her son was shot with a ghost gun--barely made it. She came into the group so broken because, I mean, can you imagine, at one point, you didn't know if your son was going to make it? She came into our group, and she just let us know, you know, how she felt. We supported her. This woman now has a group--her own nonprofit--that she's trying to start on gun safety. It's called LIFE. Lock it for Everyone. I'm so amazed with her and her son. Even her son is going out with her now and talking to different organizations about gun safety. We have another mother whose, you know, her life had been broken. And with that, she's able to go out. And it started out when she was young. And so, she's developing a program now for young girls. The other woman who's now is writing a book about the journey of life. What used to be where--and it still is where we are in partnership with juvenile court--but there are so many broken women in our community right now that people are coming to say, "Can I just be in your group? Can you help me?" And we're seeing now that we're able to now bring women in the group, help them find their way, help them find her gifts, but just believe in themselves. And then, you know, we're seeing better mothers. You know, we've been invited into the schools to do girls' groups. And these women that are just sitting, you know, in a group. Now, I'm saying to them, "Okay, you need to go with me to this." We have a mother, a grandmother, whose son was murdered, and she's about to start a grief group in our community for mothers that have lost their children. There's so many doors that can be opened by women if they have the right support. And that is my passion is that these women get out here because there's not a lot of organizations. And there are a lot that are nice. But, I mean, there's not a lot of organizations getting deep into the fact of let's pull these mothers out. You know, our saying on the back of our T-shirts is "From pain to purpose." That is one of the things that I want these mothers to go just because you're in pain right now does not stop you from moving into your purpose. And that's why we meet every Wednesday. Every Wednesday, we meet. We have dinner. I have dinner for the mothers. And we sit and we talk. And now, you know, we've been sitting for a while. And I said, "Okay, ladies! Now it's time for us to get in our community." We've had several juvenile deaths in the past month. I have attended a funeral of a young man. And, you know, just going to the funeral and walking up, seeing that mom fall in my arms. And this is not the first one, because when these mothers lose their children to gun violence, that scream that you hear, you can never unhear it. And when you hold that mother in your arms, you feel that even when you walk away, that mother's going to need support. And not just the mother of the child that was killed, but the mother of a child that killed that child. So, we want to reach out and expand our support to everyone.

Josh Hakala: Yeah. You talked about how they can find their own situations and other people that these other mothers are going through. You know, you feel alone. You feel helpless in these situations. And, like, how much of that is at the core of really helping them start the healing process?

Florence Roberson: A lot of it. And I just feel choked up right now because if you could see how broken they are when they come and you could see them like a month or two months or a year from and see them, I mean, just letting them know that somebody is here, letting them know they don't have to do anything alone, helping them find the resources. If it's trauma, let's get a therapist for you. If there's resources of housing, let's try to find housing for you. Helping these women is probably the most important thing I'm going to probably do in my life. Because I feel like if I leave this earth today, there's a trail of women they can pick up and do exactly what I'm doing. But no one would have ever taught them that if no one ever, you know, gave them the tools to do it. And the main thing for me is that making sure each one of these women be everything that they can be. I mean, and it's, like I said, so much is covered through trauma and all the different things in their life. Another thing we have to say, every woman that comes to the group doesn't want that because when they come into the group, there is an accountability piece to that. It's that I say to them, if I'm sitting on one side of the table and they're sitting on the other side is that what are my expectations for you is that I'm sitting here reaching out my hand to help you. My expectation is that you're going to be sitting there reaching your hand out to another mother.

Josh Hakala: What does the future hold for the group. You've been expanding just on these different, as I said, spinoffs of, like, different groups. But, for the core group, what do you hope to do with it to help her help even more moms?

Florence Roberson: So, the core group, right now, a lot of I call our seniors, and the group, each one of them will be starting another group. So, even if we do SURE the way we have it in our group, we want to stretch out now because right now we meet in Ann Arbor. We want we're about to start one in Ypsilanti. I would like to see each county have a group. And the other thing is that, on our wish list, is a place to meet. I mean, now when I meet a new mother, I meet her in a restaurant, I make sure I take them out, and we get a chance to meet. I never bring them right into the group because even taking out to a restaurant at times, when I meet them, they're crying. And that's a hard place to be--you know, when you sit in a restaurant crying. So, our wish list would be to have a room or a building or something where we can bring not only have mothers come in and meet but be able to provide resources to our community and their services, because I feel our mothers have that in them to provide a service.

Josh Hakala: Florence Roberson, the founder of SURE Moms, and, as always, Rylee Barnsdale from Concentrate Media. Thank you so much for joining us today on On the Ground Ypsi.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Josh.

Florence Roberson: Thank you.

Josh Hakala: This is On the Ground Ypsi. I'm Josh Hakala. This is 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University. And online at WEMU dot org.

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Josh Hakala is the general assignment reporter for the WEMU news department.
Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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