Christina G. Cummings, Executive Director of Kidz2leaders
(1) Christina, you currently work as the Executive Director of Kidz2leaders, a non-profit organization that aims to end generational incarceration. How long have you been working in the nonprofit sector and what inspired you to pursue a career in this industry?
My nonprofit work began in 2008, during my senior year of college at UGA, when I became the Executive Director of a student-run philanthropy benefitting Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. In that role, I had the opportunity to volunteer within the hospitals, lead teams of student volunteers, organize fundraising events, and advocate for our cause within the UGA community. By the time I graduated, I knew I was in love with the nonprofit world and made plans to stay at UGA to pursue a master’s degree in Public Administration, concentrating on nonprofits. My master’s program provided me with a stronger foundation for my career in the sector, gave me a network of colleagues to learn from, and, ultimately, connected me to the person who would hire me for my first real job! Ten years later, I can’t imagine doing any other type of work.
(2) What are some of your responsibilities as an Executive Director at Kidz2leaders and what led you to focus in on the area of generational incarceration?
As Executive Director, I am responsible for the day-to-day management of our business, including supporting our staff team of seven, ensuring we meet our fundraising goals, overseeing programming, and making sure we are following the strategic plan created by our board of directors.
I joined the K2L team in January of 2013 as the Director of Programs. This role was offered to me after spending a few years working professionally with women and children who were victims of domestic violence, and with children with serious illnesses. These experiences solidified a calling I felt toward youth who had endured trauma, whether it was from sickness, family violence, or other life challenges. Accepting a role with Kidz2Leaders was an easy decision, as the trauma faced by children of inmates is extraordinary, and this population is drastically underserved in Georgia.
(3) According to the organization’s research, around 200,000 children in Georgia have an incarcerated parent, in what ways does incarceration impact communities?
We know that up to 70 percent of children of inmates may one day become incarcerated if nothing is done to intervene. In the world of prison ministry, we see generation after generation within families making choices that lead to a life without freedom. In addition to being cyclical, the CDC has proven that parental incarceration is an experience that can be as traumatic as abuse, neglect, or violence in a home. Children with incarcerated parents have a higher likelihood of risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and even early death. There is also increased risk for future violence victimization and as well as perpetration. On top of that, there is an unfortunate stigma associated with familial incarceration, and the shame from this increases the burden placed on these youth. Nationally, the statistic is that one out of 28 children has an incarcerated parent – this equates to one child in every classroom at every school.
(4) Studies reveal there is an increased risk of incarceration for those children with an incarcerated parent yet 99% of graduates from the Kids2leaders program remain free from incarceration. To what do you attribute Kids2leaders’ success?
Our program exists to break the cycle of incarceration by providing stability, opportunity, and Christian community for children of inmates. Our work with children and their families begins at age eight, and our continuum is designed to support them for more than a decade, into young adulthood and beyond. We believe our positive outcomes are due to this long-term commitment we are making to children. Programs include summer camp, leadership development, job and life skills training, college scholarships, family support services, and alumni relations. Most importantly, we are creating “family” within Kidz2Leaders – a consistent, supportive family that will be there for them, even when their biological family may not be able to be. The healthy relationships developed between children and their peers, and between children and trusted teen and adult role models, are critical to them one day leading independent, successful lives free from incarceration.
(5) Every year, Kidz2leaders organization holds summer camp for children of incarcerated parents. In what ways do children benefit from participating in the summer camp experience?
At Camp Hope, we provide a week of respite from whatever challenging circumstances children may be experiencing at home – food insecurity, abuse, neglect, family violence, or simply the absence of a parent due to incarceration. We can meet their basic needs for healthy food, appropriate clothing, and a safe place to play and sleep. Then, children are physically and mentally able to focus on the healthy relationship development we strive to foster during the week. We also teach the basic, universal Christian principles of love, forgiveness, trust and joy. They learn that they are loved, by God and by their “Camp Hope Family.” They learn that extending forgiveness to others can free them from some of the burden they are carrying. They learn to trust in their friends and counselors at camp, and they learn it is possible to have joy despite their daily circumstances.
(6) Camp Hope is a week-long summer camp that aims to empower children, help them build community, and foster hope. We know community is an essential part of the human experience. Why is the building of community especially significant for the population of children Kidz2leaders works with?
I mentioned above the shame and stigma that is often associated with familial incarceration. Because of this, many youths aren’t talking about their circumstances and may never meet anyone else facing similar challenges. At camp, they form life-long connections with other campers who fully understand what they are facing. We also have a goal of campers progressing to serving as teen counselors at camp, which creates role models who can truly empathize with the younger children.
I saw a picture recently from the wedding of one of our former campers, and several of his groomsmen were young men he met as a camper. Fifteen years later, they are still walking through life together. We provide many services to children and families of inmates, however, the number one answer our alumni give when asked how Kidz2Leaders benefitted them is that they found “brothers and sisters.”
(7) Camp Hope offers leadership training for children participants with an emphasize on servant leadership and the teaching of Christian principles. What is servant leadership and how does servant leadership training differ from traditional leadership teaching?
We teach basic servant leadership skills to our middle school campers in what we call our Leadership Training Academy. Biblical servant leadership isn’t about self-promotion. It focuses on leading by example, serving those in need, and acting as a role model to encourage those around you to make good choices. Our teachings include stories from scripture of Jesus and who He was as a leader during His ministry on Earth. Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Ideally, our servant leadership training will prepare campers for the opportunity to eventually become a teen counselor to a younger child, allowing them to give back to the program that poured into them for so many years.
(8) Kidz2leaders collaborates with other faith-based organizations and nonprofits such as, Midwest Food Bank, United Way of greater Atlanta, and Jackson Healthcare. Why is it important for nonprofits to form community partnerships?
The families we serve often need support in many areas – finances, education, mental health, food, housing, etc. If we tried to be all things to all people within K2L, we would quickly lose focus and fail. I am thankful we are part of a community with an overwhelming number of nonprofit and local government agencies to which we can make referrals. We also would not exist without the financial and volunteer support we receive from our friends in local businesses, corporations, family foundations, and churches. In 2017, we were incredibly fortunate to have had more than 400 donors and more than 450 volunteers.
(9) What is the most valuable piece of information/or skill you’ve learned while working as an Executive Director at Kidz2leaders?
We have to focus on fulfilling our specific mission – ending generational incarceration -- and not allow ourselves to be pulled into other semi-relevant projects because of tempting funding or secondary needs of children of inmates. There are dozens of ways we could serve these families, and it’s important to continuously be analyzing how we can most effectively break the cycle of incarceration. Every time we consider a new program opportunity, we ask ourselves how it fits within our mission of providing “stability, opportunity, and Christian community.” If it doesn’t, then even if it’s a good idea, it’s not for us!
(10) What advice would you give those young nonprofit professionals wanting to make an impact in their local communities?
Find an organization that you can’t get enough of and commit to staying there as long as possible. I’ve learned more than I ever dreamed from spending the last five years at Kidz2Leaders, and I can’t imagine going anywhere else. The more you invest in your organization, the more they will invest in you and your professional goals. Don’t cut yourself off too soon!
Interviewed by: Latoya Stephenson-Smith