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They Tried to Bury Us, They Didn’t Know We Were Seeds

When Mom called my freshman year and asked if I knew that the College of Charleston was the #1 Party School in the Nation, I answered, “No!”.  I swear I didn’t know.  But I quickly learned why CofC had earned such a prestigious title and I’m proud to share that I spent the first couple of years ensuring that we remained the #1 Party School in the nation.  

As the daughter and granddaughter of insanely well respected educators you can imagine how terrified I was when I received an email from my

Zakiya Esper

Zakiya Esper

college advisor informing me that the first semester of my Junior year would be spent anywhere but at CofC.  My commitment to the college’s party school ranking had led to my GPA plummeting below a 2.0.  Things had gotten really real, really fast.  I had been kicked out of school.  The College informed me that my actions during the next semester would determine if I would be readmitted in the Spring.  They encouraged me to spend my time doing something that would help me remember why I had come to the college in the first place.

My family was incredibly supportive.  They encouraged me to stay in Charleston and “figure it out”.  My mentor, Greg Liotta, called after he heard that I had been sat out.  He informed me that he was the Executive Director of a group home called Florence Crittenton Programs of SC (FCP).  He invited me to come and do some work for him…after all he knew I had nothing but time on my hands.  I accepted a position as an Activities Coordinator at Florence Crittenton, a nonprofit group home for pregnant teenagers.  I immediately fell head over heels in love with the work that was taking place in this home.  I got fulfillment from the work that I was doing with the girls.  It felt meaningful, necessary…impactful.  

December rolled around and as required I wrote a letter to CofC chronicling my time at FCP.  I wrote about the passion that I had for working with these young ladies that had seemingly been given up on by everyone around them.  I wrote about how important it was for me to have not been given up on by my mentor, Greg, when I was in a really low place.  I screwed up and got kicked out of school and instead of chastising me he handed me an opportunity for redemption.  The college was very impressed by my letter and my experiences while at FCP and they approved my readmission.  I graduated from the College of Charleston in 2010 with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology.  I continued to work at FCP as I finished my degree and even worked there on and off after graduation.  I fell in love with the work being done at Florence Crittenton and I learned so much about how the nonprofit industry flows, connects, and gives.  I wanted to give like that.

I was engaged to be married and had only finished at CofC a year ago when an opportunity presented itself to work at the Department of Juvenile Justice as a juvenile probation officer.  Excited to expand my reach I said my goodbyes to Florence Crittenton and began my journey as a Charleston County DJJ PO.  In my second day on the job my supervisor handed me 40 cases.  He explained to me that they were “my kids” and I was expected to see each of them monthly.  He further explained that I would get new kids every week…sometimes 3 or 4 new kids per week.  Let me paint a picture of what was expected of me as a PO at Charleston County DJJ.  Any given day I managed a caseload of 95-101 juveniles who were court ordered to be on probation.  We were expected to oversee their cases in court, conduct monthly visits (home, school, and placement), track juveniles on house arrest, maintain correspondence with service providers, provide reports to public defenders and solicitors, attend staffings to ensure that proper referrals and recommendations are being made, and oversee their court order to ensure that stipulations are being met and not violated.  This is not a comprehensive list.  I was overwhelmed. Drowning.  I knew for certain that while I loved the kids that I was able to see, I was not helping them.  I wasn’t meeting half of the expectations that were expected of me and I felt as though most of the expectations weren’t based on the actual needs of my clients.  During a training in my first year (where I’m sure I was supposed to be paying attention) I began jotting down thoughts about what kids that I was trying to help actually needed. I literally spent the entire day scribbling down services, programs, and ideas of what this dream resource center would do for the children on probation in Charleston County. I titled the program “Sowing Seeds into the Lowcountry”.  I folded up the paper full of scribbles and dreams, tucked it away in my wallet, and got back to work.

At 6 months pregnant my husband and I decided that we’d relocate to Columbia, SC where we could be closer to family to raise our first child, Ryan, and where there was a PO position open in Richland County.  I applied for the position and just like that I was a Richland County probation officer.  In Richland County things were much more manageable.  I managed a caseload that never surpassed 40 clients.  “Perfect!”, I thought.  “I’ll really be able to help these kids.”

Wrong.

I kept finding myself in court standing next to kids being court ordered to go to boot camps, having their probationary periods extended, and sometimes even being court ordered to serve time in juvenile detention facilities. I was running into the same walls I ran into in Charleston. These kids weren’t “bad” kids.  They were being charged with things like Assault and Battery for fighting at school or charged with Disturbing School for disrupting class.  The same types of things that most young people do at this age.  I finally realized that the issue in Charleston wasn’t an unmanageable caseload but that it was a lack of resources, which was the same wall I was running into in Richland County.  

Myself and other PO’s were calling every mentoring agency in the area only to hear that there were waiting lists that were 6-9 months long or that they didn’t work with youth who had criminal charges.  We called counseling agencies only to encounter disreputable and inconsistent service providers.  We reached out to other government agencies who saw our youth as numbers and not individuals with real needs.  I was frustrated and infuriated that no one would help me help.  Why was it so hard to help? Why were we punishing youth for making mistakes that we should expect of them when we weren’t holding up our end of the deal by ensuring that we provided them with the services that we asked a judge to court order that they complete? I couldn’t do it anymore.  

After much prayer and many discussions with my husband, family, and friends I resigned from my position as a Juvenile Probation Officer at the Department of Juvenile Justice.  In September of 2014 I began working full time as the Founder and Executive Director of a grassroots nonprofit organization that I named Sowing Seeds into the Midlands (Seeds).  Seeds is an adaptation of the ideas for the resource center that I had scribbled on paper 3 years prior in that training.

Sowing Seeds into the Midlands is a grassroots organization that provides support services to youth in an effort to decriminalize adolescence and interrupt the school to prison pipeline.  We target youth who are on probation or are exhibiting behavior that could lead to contact with the criminal justice system.  We serve anyone who’s interested in or drawn to the work that we do.  

Currently our Mentoring, Life Skills, Counseling, Therapeutic Gardening and Sexual Health Programs are fully operating.  We are planning to launch our Tutoring and GED/SAT Prep Programs in the very near future.  Over the past three years our organization has reached over 200 Midlands youth. This summer we hosted our very first day camp where 15 kids attended bi-weekly workshops and bi-weekly outings.  We wrapped the summer with a trip to Folly Beach and a block party to celebrate all of the magic that we shared this summer.  This is only the beginning.  Seeds has big plans for the youth of the Midlands.  

  • Plans to dismantle the school to prison pipeline.  
  • Plans to decriminalize adolescence.  
  • Plans to support them during the tough times.  
  • Plans to provide safe spaces for them to share, connect, stumble, and grow.  
  • Plans to expose them to how awesome our city is.  
  • Plans to help them see how limitless their lives are.  
  • Plans to hand them opportunities for redemption.

We hope you’ll join us.  

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