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Meet Amy Friedman of POPS the Club

Today we’d like to introduce you to Amy Friedman.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Amy. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
POPS stands for Pain of the Prison System, and POPS the Club is a nonprofit I co-founded in early 2013 following a long career as a newspaper columnist, author and ghostwriter.

POPS creates and supports school clubs for teens whose parents, siblings and other loved ones are or have been incarcerated. We designed the program based on the model of the first LGBTQ club created in the US in 1988 at one school in Massachusetts–that ultimately blossomed into the Gay Straight Alliance and a movement.

I sought to create a supportive, nurturing environment for these kids because I had been married to a man who was incarcerated. Raising our daughters, I experienced the stigma and shaming the girls endured, and the silence that stigma engendered. I believe that we all are only as sick as our secrets, and I know that if young people have a place where they need not keep secret their real-life experiences, where they discover they are not alone, they are able to blossom.

Here’s the startling statistic: In the United States today, 1 in 14 children has a parent who is or has been incarcerated. This means that in every single classroom, there is at least 1 if not 2 or 10 children who have experienced this pain. But the population has been largely invisible because of the stigma and shaming. POPS recognizes the strength, wisdom, and resilience of these young people, and our publishing program amplifies their voices.

Today we serve youth in 19 schools in 5 states, with a dream of bringing POPS the Club to high schools everywhere, and this year we publishing our 7th award-winning anthology featuring the powerful poetry, stories and artwork by these youth.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Is any road worth traveling ever smooth? I think not. The struggles have been many–beginning with finding schools and principals willing to welcome a fledgling nonprofit into its corridors. We have encountered principals and school districts that believe they do not serve this population and/or do not wish to “target” them for fear they will be further shamed.

But we have worked with hundreds of extraordinary educators, volunteers and employees who have helped us expand as we have. The primary challenge as it is for most nonprofits has been funding. We have been largely dependent for eight years now on foundation funding, and with Covid-19 that funding has to some degree moved away from funding organizations like ours that provide critical Social Emotional support.

Other struggles have included expanding beyond the founders’ vision and circles of support. But we’re moving in the right direction.

Please tell us about POPS the Club.
POPS the Club is known for transforming shame and stigma into hope and healing for a long-ignored population and for celebrating the strength and resilience of these young people–the children, siblings and other loved ones of the incarcerated.

Children with incarcerated loved ones are more likely than their peers to have behavioral problems, are more likely to drop out of school, to self-medicate and to face profound mental and physical health challenges into adulthood. POPS promotes the resilience of these kids and prevents these risky trajectories. Our mission is to provide support to loved ones of the incarcerated so that they can effectively address and move past the mental and emotional challenges they experience as a result of their involvement with the criminal justice system. We do this by providing powerful arts- evidence-based strategies in weekly club meetings–and we build language skills and self-worth, supporting youth to narrate their experiences in poetry, stories, storytelling, and art.

Our annually published anthologies are popular with “kids” from age 10 to 100. We are one of only three organizations in the country serving this population inside their schools.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
I have had so many mentors, supporters, and cheerleaders, it’s risky to begin to name them, but I’ll begin with the kids themselves. We launched in 2013 at Venice High School where the first cohort of youth–25 brave, wise teens–named the organization and worked hard to make sure we kept the dream of expansion alive. One of those young men, Victor Zapata, is a staff member today, running our social media; and a young woman who was a member of the second group at Venice High, Valeria De La Torre, works as our Volunteer Coordinator.

Without the Executive Service Corps of Southern California’s Executive Director Leadership Institute, and my mentor through that program, Rachel Davenport, POPS would never have made it past year one.

Madge Stein Woods has been our angel investor since the earliest days and has also served on the board and as a volunteer and one of the greatest cheerleaders one could ask for.

The Durfee Foundation’s Springboard Grant sprang me into a deeper understanding, and Jonathan Zeichner, my mentor through that grant and the Executive Director of A Place Called Home, has been an unending source of guidance and support.

Staff members Arielle Harris and Sonia Faye and interns Katherine Secaida, Carmen De La Torre, Karen Arellano and Alexis Parish make the sometimes unending work always a joy.

There are so many educators, volunteers, funders and foundations that have made our continued existence and success possible, I cannot possibly name them all…but without them, there is no POPS and we share more about each of them on our website www.popsclubs.org.

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