Agape embeds in Whitehaven to prevent youth from entering foster system

According to Memphis-based Agape Child and Family Services, Whitehaven has one of the city’s highest rates of children removed by the Department of Children’s Services.

By embedding staff in Whitehaven schools and apartment buildings, Agape has been able to ease factors of household instability such as truancy rates and unmet medical needs. This year, they are amping up their dedication to Whitehaven by expanding their wraparound model to three more neighborhood schools.

Agape has worked in the foster care and adoption systems for nearly 50 years, but in the last decade, it’s undergone a major shift in focus. While it still provides foster and adoption support, its newest mission is whole-family and whole-community care to help keep kids at healthy, happy, and in their own homes.

Founded in 1970 by members of the Churches of Christ, Agape is a faith-based organization born of the deinstitutionalization movement (most commonly associated with mainstreaming people with disabilities). The original focus was on reducing the number of children in group homes through adoptions and home-based foster placements. 

“The larger movement was the belief that youth and families were better cared for in their communities, no matter what the programmatic response,” said David Jordan, Agape’s president and CEO.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the organization began to consider how they might create a whole-systems response to the needs of a child before it became necessary to remove them from their family households.

Their data showed that 50 percent of Memphis’ foster care cases were coming from just three areas of the city — Raleigh-Frayser, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven. They also observed in these areas some of the city’s highest rates of poverty and crime, lack of access to employers and transportation and poor school performance.

“We committed eight years ago to trusting what communities have to say and believing that they know better for their lives and their community than we would. Our role is to come alongside, to listen well, to empower and bring resources and services and address barriers, systemic and otherwise, that would stand in the way of them being successful."

Agape's model focuses support on families in the most at-risk neighborhoods, not just the children already placed with DCS. Agape serves as a connector between families and a vast network of local and national partners.

“We’re not trying to do everything, but we’re trying to quarterback on the ground and connect to those who do extremely well in a range of services,” said Jordan.

While wrapping support around families, Agape simultaneously works to address the larger, systematic barriers that contribute to children entering the system — things like safety and policing, education, workforce development, safe and affordable housing and transportation.

“The goal is to move the needle on poverty by one percentage point a year for ten years,” said Jordan.

In March of 2010, Agape launched their progressive new model for community development with pilot programs in Raleigh-Frayser and Hickory Hill. Whitehaven has been an intentionally slower burn, but work there grew significantly in 2017 and is expected to be as robust as its sister programs by the end of this year.

Agape looked specifically to apartment complexes as micro-communities within the larger neighborhoods.

Across the country, a wave of public housing closures has positioned inexpensive apartment complexes in low-income communities as the best housing option for many former residents. Locally, Memphis’s last public housing complex, Foote Homes, closed in 2017. Residents of the complex’s 420 households were scattered across Memphis with support from Memphis HOPE Urban Strategies.

Related: "South City: Housing a neighborhood in transition"


But communities like Foote Homes were more than just a place to live. They were centralized locations for government and nonprofit organizations assisting with food, childcare, jobs, housing, and more to easily reach their clients. Apartment communities lack these focused services, putting the onus on families to connect to and navigate services on their own.

For Agape, apartment complexes offered a starting point to reconnect with those families and others like them. The nonprofit has a presence in 11 apartment communities across the three neighborhoods, including the Bent Tree, New Horizon, and Summit Park complexes in Whitehaven.

Agape begins its work by deeply embedding social services coordinators, know as connectors, into each complex. Through one-on-one relationships and guided, group conversations known as Community Cafes, connectors listen to families and help them assess their strengths and barriers to success.

Agape then takes a multigenerational approach by serving households across generations so that everyone can better support the child's development. From the home environment, connectors assess the families’ needs across school, work, and play, linking each member of the family to necessary services and resources.

“We committed eight years ago to trusting what communities have to say and believing that they know better for their lives and their community than we would. Our role is to come alongside, to listen well, to empower and bring resources and services and address barriers, systemic and otherwise, that would stand in the way of them being successful,” said Jordan.

Agape’s partners have included United Way of the Mid-South and Memphis Light, Gas & Water for utility assistance and Memphis Police Department to address safety and address adverse childhood experiences like domestic violence. Youth Villages and several universities have provided behavioral support, counseling sessions, and parenting classes. Hundreds of volunteers lend time to after-school tutoring, mentoring, and reading interventions. They’ve also collaborated with over 100 nonprofits and churches on everything from financial assistance to summer programs.

Related: "Driving the Dream addresses 'paternalistic' approach, creates a new system for treating poverty"

To improve employment opportunities, Agape has worked with Workforce Investment Network and Southwest Tennessee Community college on reducing barriers for adult education and job training. Their Teamworks program connects teens and adults to employment and offers training, educational assistance, and help with career retention and advancement through coaching and soft skills training.

Agape also offers courses on financial literacy and credit repair and how to navigate conflicts in life and relationships.

Stars, Agape’s school-based program launched in 2013, is a partnership with Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. The program embeds connectors into each of the schools attended by students from the 11 apartment communities. An individual connector works with up to 25 students to address non-academic factors of performance such as attendance, social-emotional needs and family engagement.

“We’ve had kids whose parents don’t have medical coverage but they’ve need counseling or medicine or glasses. They really work to make sure that [they get it],” said Dr. Terrance Brittenum, principal at A. Maceo Walker Middle School.

A. Maceo Walker, located on Raines Road, is Agape’s first Whitehaven Stars school. In addition to covering medical needs like glasses for students, Agape has helped with uniforms, food, and even furniture for families transitioning from homelessness.

For adults, Agape has hosted financial literacy classes and a Nurturing Fathers workshop for fathers and father-figures with strategies for effective parenting and deeper relationships. On March 28th, they hosted a similar Nurturing Mothers workshop. For Brittenum, Agape’s programs build A. Maceo Walker's reach and reputation as a center for the Whitehaven community.

According to Agape’s data, Stars is having a major impact across all three three target neighborhoods of Whitehaven, Hickory Hill and Raleigh-Frayser. The first class of Stars seniors, engaged in the program since its 2013, graduated last May with a 100 percent graduation rate and 93 percent college enrollment.

Agape’s research has also shown that truancy is a major factor for future achievement with low-income students three times more likely to be chronically absent. Chronically absent students are 7.4 times more likely to drop out. Across Stars schools, acceptable levels of attendance have increased from 65 percent to 93 percent since the 2014 to 2015 school year.

According to Jordan and Brittenum, the relationship between attendance and transportation is the next big undertaking for Whitehaven and A. Maceo Walker’s partnership with Agape. Whitehaven’s large geographic area, roughly 18 square miles, means that school zones are also expansive.

Many of A. Maceo Walker’s students lack access to a family vehicle but live just shy of the two-mile requirement for busing established by Shelby County Schools. They walk to school each day, but when the weather is bad, they’re unlikely to show and their performance suffers.

The partners have brainstormed alternatives to the district’s buses, including a carpooling program and a collaboration for alternative busing that’s currently in development and would assist with children’s truancy as well as access to employment and leisure for the whole family.

“We’re just trying to think outside of the box and be as creative as we can … They can’t learn if they’re not in school,” said Brittenum.

Agape is in the process of hiring additional Whitehaven connectors and a site coordinator to expand services for the 2018 to 2019 school year at A. Maceo Walker. The organization will also soon launch in three other Whitehaven schools: Winchester and Robert R. Church elementary schools and Hillcrest High School.

They also meet recently with Corky’s BBQ’s Whitehaven manufacturing facility to discuss an employment partnership and are looking to connect to more local businesses as they gear up the Whitehaven Teamworks program. 

As the Whitehaven neighborhood continues to assess its strengths and barriers, there is potential for entirely new programs and partners. Its imperative to center relationships, listen deeply, build strengths and be a connector is adaptable and inspires genuine relationships for whole-community development.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Urban Child Institute; it is one article in a series highlighting the impact and importance of early childhood education.  The Urban Child Institute focuses its grantmaking, advocacy and community support on kindergarten readiness and third-grade literacy in an effort to improve the education, health and well-being of children and families in Shelby County.

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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.