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By Sandra Coopersmith
Features Reporter 

Coping Creatively Through POPS Clubs

 

Enlightening, thought-provoking, intriguing, profound, insightful, funny, heartbreaking, hopeful, inspiring – you name it. That describes Dear Friends, which was published in April and is the eighth annual anthology from POPS the Club, (https://popsclubs.org/). POPS stands for “pain of the prison system,” so this is not just any book. It delineates the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of students with incarcerated loved ones, who have created their stories, poetry, and artwork mainly in isolation during the pandemic.

“How much longer, I wonder / Until it remembers / The heart is not a prisoner of its misfortunes, but a survivor.” That excerpt from “Misfortunate Heart,” a powerful poem by Nathalie Gonzalez, could well describe what drives POPS. The nonprofit is determined to help those hearts remember to be strong and flourish and, to that end, is committed to creating a safe, empowering space in schools so the students can transform shame and stigma into hope and dignity through arts-based programs,


Students primarily learn about the existence of a POPS club through the school sponsor or sponsors, each club being sponsored by one or more teachers, administrators, or school counselors. Interest is aroused through word-of-mouth and by sharing the anthologies.

While the club meetings include food, which is often the initial drawing card, the nourishment provided goes far beyond that, as described by Carina Diaz, the school sponsor of the POPS club at Culver City High School: “When the volunteers and students talk about different topics you feel the support in the room and the amenity of the conversation. I love the setting of this organization where students can express themselves without being judged, and their feelings and perspectives are heard and acknowledged.”


Alba Nava, who graduates from Culver City High School this year, was “very happy to say I will be attending University of California, Berkeley this fall where I will be studying nutritional sciences with an emphasis in physiology and metabolism. POPS has taught me the power of community, that when people of all walks of life come together they realize they have more in common than they have differences. It has been a safe space where I have been able to share my experiences, struggles, and accomplishments with very supportive people. It has also opened my eyes as to how the incarceration of a loved one can impact many people in many different ways.

“My first day at POPS has to be one of the most memorable. I remember walking into this space where the energy just sat right with me, that despite my nerves I could settle in a space with open and caring people. I was greeted with smiles from students and volunteers who wanted me to be a part of this incredible space. In many ways this new place felt familiar.”

Her advice to those in a similar situation: “Prioritize yourself. Care about your feelings and your growth. If we fail to recognize our worth we will not be open to meeting others and learning to grow again. When we realize that we are a priority in our own life we can let others in and see that we are not alone in our struggles.”

Holland (“Holly”) Capps and Katherine (“Kat”) Secaida, who are POPS alumni and its Communications Ambassadors, presented their comments jointly, and excerpts follow.

Regarding the most common misunderstandings about people who are in prison and their families, they stated that “the primary misconception is that because of having a loved one incarcerated that young person is likely to be incarcerated too. Absolutely not true, and that misconception IS the stigma. People expecting the worst of a young person puts that individual in an impossible bind: How to prove the expectation wrong while feeling burdened by that expectation? Other misconceptions include that the person cannot possibly love ‘the bad guy’ (the incarcerated individual) without there being something wrong with them; that they must themselves be ‘bad guys’; that there is something inherently wrong with the family itself; that they cannot be successful, cannot shine in school and beyond, cannot compete intellectually, emotionally or socially with kids who aren't impacted by incarceration.”

The writing and artwork the students do in POPS are tools for rehabilitation since

“often children are loathe to tell their parents or siblings or other loved ones about the real impact of the incarceration on that child. They do not want to add to the stress of their incarcerated loved one, and they fear that telling the truth about what happens to them ‘outside’ will increase that stress. They often feel protective and/or sometimes they are estranged from their incarcerated loved one and cannot share their feelings with that person, though they might ‘secretly’ wish they could.”

In addition to being instruments of change for students who were ready to drop out of school, thus enabling them to drop out of gangs instead and upgrade their bleak vision of the future to one that includes college, the clubs also create change in the schools because “over time, usually three or four years, school personnel and the POPS club members’ peers come to understand the reality of what it means to love someone who is incarcerated or detained, and in some instances who has been deported, and to empathize with the youth who are impacted. Frequently teachers who thought students were ‘hopeless,’ perhaps because they spaced out in class or because they never brought their permission slips in on time, or because they fell asleep in class, discover that the student simply needed someone to listen, someone to understand the distinct pressures he or she faced, and with that understanding came comfort and the ability to better focus.”

The anthologies have three target audiences: (1) teens, pre-teens and their teachers; (2) men and women in prison, jail, and detention centers; and (3) public health and public education officials.

Because of their authenticity, the books “inspire even the most reluctant readers to read, and they expand teachers' and peer understanding of the creators, of themselves, and of each other.” Many incarcerated individuals “will recognize themselves, but more than that, many are themselves parents or other loved ones of youth who are struggling outside, and the books inspire them to better understand the impact of their behavior on those they love, and to better understand what their own children or siblings or nieces and nephews need from them.”

Public health and public education officials are an audience since “mass incarceration has been shown to be one of the major public health challenges facing the U.S. today as millions cycle through the courts, jails, and prisons and experience higher rates of chronic health problems, substance abuse, and mental health illness than the general population. Ensuring that we are aware of the impact of a loved one's incarceration on our youth will inspire those doing the research and supporting programming that lead to better health outcomes to understand the youth who are impacted and to learn from them what they need and want to maintain their sanity, their good health, and their successful futures.”

DEAR FRIENDS can be purchased by going to https://popsclubs.org/ and clicking on POPS BOOKS, where the previous anthologies are also available. Additionally, the website provides other opportunities to help support POPS in providing dignity, empowerment, community, and a voice to its youth. For further information contact TheTeam@popsclubs.org.

 

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