A Happy Story, Part Two

In December 2015, Paradyse Oakley told me that besides being a track star (Michelle let that secret out of the bag), she was also her district’s representative for the Youth Ambassador Program (http://empowerla.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/2016EB-YAAPPoutgoing2-9-16openenrollment.pdf)
that brings together teens in a year-long program of activities and workshops, travel and volunteer events to learn about policy, legislation, and the civic process, how local, state and federal governments operate.

She explained that as part of the program, she wrote a bill introducing POPS the Club as a way to aid students who are suffering from the emotional and mental trauma of the incarceration of a loved one. She took the bill to Sacramento to the state-wide conference where thousands of student Ambassadors gathered, and she was able to lobby for the bill so that it became part of the state-wide Youth Ambassador Legislative Program. Her bill passed.

As a result, she has brought Pops the Club to the attention of every Youth Ambassador in the state and has spread the word to thousands of high school students across California.

In March, 2016, a number of Youth Ambassadors were selected to go to Washington, D.C. to tour the White House, meet officials and legislators and to learn about those policies of utmost concern to the President. There she met White House Domestic Policy advisor Elias Alcantara who spoke about the President’s deep interest in addressing the problems embedded in the nation’s criminal justice system.

Alcantara was about to leave the room when someone stopped him for a photo op. Paradyse saw her opportunity. She moved to his side, pressed her business card into his hand and quickly—while photos were being snapped—pitched POPS the Club.

In short, Paradyse Oakley did the next-to-impossible: She snagged the ear of the White House.

A week later Paradyse phoned to ask me if I was free the following Friday afternoon, April 8. “A guy from the White House is coming to L.A. and wants to meet to talk about POPS,” she said.

Now, Paradyse has called me many times. She had phoned in the early fall to remind me about the questionnaire she’d sent for POPS students to fill out. I’d done my best to get her as many respondents to her questionnaire as I could (but most high school students don’t respond to email—it seems like the Pony Express to a lot of them.)

Later in the fall she phoned from Sacramento just as she was about to present her bill to the Youth Ambassadors. I could hear the buzz of the conference surrounding her, and I answered her questions as best as I could. The next day she called to excitedly tell me her bill had passed, and she mentioned something about Washington coming up next.

I confess, I didn’t pay close attention. I was glad she was going to Washington, but the import of the trip didn’t land.

So now on the phone when she told me the White House was coming to L.A. and wanted to meet with us to hear about POPS, I wasn’t sure what she meant. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll have to rearrange some things for Friday,” and for the next few days I texted her several times, asking: “Who are we meeting, where and when?”

After a couple of days she answered, “You’re going to hear from my mentor, Sheldon Cruz.”

And that day, at 12:30 p.m., as I was standing in the classroom at Venice prepping lunch for a POPS the Club meeting, my phone rang. I pressed the button: “I’m unavailable, please send a text.” I’d never before used that application. True confession: I wasn’t even aware I had it, but some angel was watching over me, or watching over POPS. Or maybe it was just more evidence of the Paradyse magic.

(We like to joke that because POPS Venice has a student named Glorious and POPS Lawndale has Paradyse and POPS LAHSA has Heaven, that we’re covered. But maybe it isn’t a joke…)

Anyway, five minutes after I pressed that button, just as Venice POPS President Tyanni Gomez and I were calling the meeting to order, an electronic voice from inside my phone shouted: YOU HAVE A TEXT MESSAGE.

Another confession: I set my phone to alert me by voice when I have a text because if I didn’t hear that shout, I’d forget to check.

Tyanni rolled her eyes and leaned over to shut off the sound, but as she did, her gaze caught the message, and her eyes widened, and she looked up at the 50 students gathered and said, “Guys, the White House is calling Amy…”

She wasn’t precisely right. The message was from Sheldon Cruz, Senior Policy Analyst for the City of L.A., founder of the YA Youth Ambassador Cohort, and Paradyse’s mentor, the man she had promised would call. He wrote:

We have a request from the White House to coordinate a listening tour and discussion on the POPS Program. … call me as soon as you can.

An hour later we talked. Sheldon explained that White House representative Elias Alcantara wanted to attend a POPS meeting that Friday—48 hours hence. I told Sheldon that POPS Venice meets on Wednesday and that Friday was a shortened school day—all the students would be gone by 12:34.

Sheldon was warm and funny and smart and one of those people you want to please. He said, “When the White House asks, we accommodate. I’m sure we can accommodate…,” and I knew we would figure something out. He said that he and Mr. Alcantara andd Tsegs Haupte, the parent liaison for the Youth Ambassador Program would all be visiting and that they would need two parking spaces reserved for two government vehicles. He said he was very much looking forward to this and to learning more about POPS.

The moment I hung up, I called our intrepid program manager, Mel Keedle, and she and Dennis and I flew into action. We wrote to Principal Weidoeft at Venice to request her help in allowing students to leave their classes during 5th and 6th period; we ordered lunch from Subway and traveled to Costco to stock up on supplies; I printed out a copy of our latest anthology and put together packages—business cards, brochures, our first two anthologies.

On Thursday morning, in the rain, during the Blood Drive, Dennis waylaid POPS kids out in the yard—can you come to a special POPS meeting? It might run past 12:34… When he came home to told me at least 30 kids had promised they would be there and that Glorious Owens had agreed to read her latest knock-your-socks-off poem. I texted POPS graduates. John Bembry and his friend Delmas would be there, 11:20 on the dot, he texted back; Bianca was coming, “for sure.” I called Danielle Williams, the USC graduate student who is, under the guidance of her advisor, Professor of Public Policy Raphael Bostic, doing the outcomes research on the students from the first two years of POPS the Club. Danielle promised she would do her best to get there, and Alison Longman, one of our volunteers, said “Sure, I’ll come serve lunch and help with whatever you need…”

The plan had been for me to drive an hour north to Northridge to go to James Monroe High to train a new group of volunteers and a new sponsor who is bringing POPS the Club to her school. But the training was 2:00 and if the White House was planning to be there at 11:30, there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it all the way to the Valley for 2:00. Mel said, “I’ll do the training,” so we spent with my training her how to do the training.

On Friday at 10 a.m. Mel finished her teaching job in Watts and headed toward Venice, and I drove over to Subway to pick up the sandwiches. Dennis was at school gathering kids and setting up the room and making sure all the students had their passes signed. By 10:45 we were all in Room 120, Dennis’s classroom, setting up for the meeting when Alison called and said, “I’m stuck in traffic…”

It was raining—most unusual in L.A. but still more unusual in April. And rain always louses up the traffic in L.A. But on top of weather, President Obama was in town (along with his delegation), and whenever the President comes to town, the already impossible traffic turns nightmarish. Obama’s fundraiser was being held just blocks from Alison’s house, and according to the cop she talked to, there wasn’t a street open that would permit her to cross Sunset in order to head south to reach us.

But POPS people are valiant: Our Alison found a secret route and by 11 she was at Venice too.

Glorious walked into the room to practice her piece. Tall, beautiful, wild-haired Glorious was dressed in sweats, a voluminous hoody and clunky Uggs. “You dressed up for the White House, I see,” I joked.

She grinned. “It’s raining out. This is what we wear when it rains…”

But grungy as her outfit was, she was as exquisite and powerful as ever as she stood up and read to us.

Glorious Owens
Glorious Owens, photo by Gabby Goldberg

Mel and Alison and I were already in tears. I wished I hadn’t slapped on that mascara.

At 11:17, the bell rang. Glorious had to leave to go to her 5th period class but would return at 12 for 6th. Then 36 students poured into the room—quiet as usual, respectful, they took the seats we had arranged in a kind of semi-circle in that dingy room. As it always does, the dinginess of the room vanished once the students were there, smiling, whispering, reaching to look at the sample of the manuscript I’d prepared—all 226 pages of our new anthology, their writing and their art, pressed into a binder, ready for the designer. They were hungry to see their words in print, eager to see where their stories and poems appeared in the collection. Colbie sat hunched over the manuscript reading word after word after word until someone insisted he pass it around. They gaped at it and sighed and celebrated and treated it like the sacred text it is.

Mel wrote the agenda on the White Board, and then she and Alison ran outside (into the rain) to wait for the government cars and to guide our visitors to their saved parking spaces.

The agenda began, as always:

FIRST WE EAT

We ate. I’d ordered just enough sandwiches and salad to go around—but just barely—I’d been expecting maybe 25 but 36 appeared. They swarmed the table, but everyone made sure there was enough to go around. When they had to, they shared.

INTRODUCTIONS

I stood at the podium to explain the plan for the day: Paradyse would be coming. I told them who she was and how this day had come to be.

Dennis stood up and told them how happy he was to see them there, how tired he has grown of teaching, exhausted really—his classes are overwhelmingly large, he’s taught for 23 years, he could retire—but, he said, they inspire him to, their stories and their courage touch him that deeply.

At11:35, the door opened and in walked Sheldon Cruz with Paradyse and two other Lawndale POPS students, Vinnie and Marie, followed by Tsege Haupte and her two beautiful twin daughters, and Sheldon’s right-hand man, Jamal Ali. They took seats as Sheldon apologized—“Mr. Alcantara, Elias, is running late, he’s stuck in traffic but he’s on his way…”,

Tyanni introduced Paradyse, and Paradyse took the podium.

By then it was nearly 11:45, and the end-of-the-shortened-school-day bell was going to ring at 12:34; a dozen or more students would have to leave to catch their buses home. And Mr. Alcantara had told Sheldon who told me he could only stay until 12:45—he had another appointment after ours.

But never mind:

POPS student Nichole Landaverde got her camera ready, and she and Sheldon and Tsege and Mel and Jamal began to move around the room snapping photos as Paradyse spoke, telling the students how this meeting had come to be.

After that Dennis and I told the tale of the origins of POPS—the way I’d always wished my stepdaughters had had somewhere in school to go where they felt safe and nurtured and protected from the stigma they suffered because their father went to prison; Dennis talked about his first visit to Folsom to see an incarcerated former student, a “surrogate son,” how he’d come to understand how much support and understanding the loved ones of prisoners need. We talked about how one day just 38 months ago we said, “Let’s start a club,” and now here we were in the room with all these amazing young people waiting to meet with President Obama’s representative…

“Maybe some of the students can introduce themselves,” Sheldon said.

That’s when the real waterworks began. One by one our students stood up and told us their names and they told their stories. They said POPS was family. They talked about why writing meant so much to them. They described the pain they had felt, sharing traumas they had suffered. They spoke about each other with so much reverence and even love, I couldn’t believe my ears—and I know these kids. I know their stories. But that day they were especially brave. They were wide open—hearts on sleeves, eyes wide open, longing and desire and need and hope laid bare.

Paradyse nodded, Sheldon nodded, we all did, listening closely, as one after another after another told a story.

I wished Elias Alcantara were there to hear.

Mel and Alison kept running outside to check for him, running back inside damp from the rain with a shake of their heads. No sign yet. Sheldon stood in the back of the room texting with Elias, calling out once in a while, “He’s getting closer,” and then finally, “he just crossed the 405…”

Alison and Mel ran outside to guide him in.

12:34. The bell rang, and ten kids stood up, gingerly. “I have a ride waiting…” they said sadly. “It’s the bus… I’m so sorry…” They hugged me. They shook their heads, disappointed, sorry to go.

Dennis said, “If some of you can stay that would be great, but we understand if you have to leave…”

But twenty-four kids stayed while the others shuffled out, whispering, “I wish I could stay…”

Elias Alcantara
Elias Alcantara (center) with some of the POPS the Club students from Venice & Lawndale

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