Palm Springs-based program helps students, strengthens families

It’s tucked behind a church, so you would expect a few miracles to transpire. But what you may not expect from one Palm Springs-based program is a return on investment that’s almost too hard to measure.

African-American middle school students and their families invest 10-12 hours per week in the program during the school year. In return, they earn something more valuable than any stock, bond, or real estate investment can offer — resilience.

You would expect that, though, given that the Youth & Family Africentric Rites of Passage Program is a component of BRAAF — Building Resilience in African American Families.

Simply put, “When kids are more confident and have more pride, they do better,” said Sandra Austin, CEO of the Family Health & Support Network that offers the program at the BRANCH (Building Resilience and Nurturing Community Health) Institute on the campus of First Baptist Church on Rosa Parks Road.

Unlike other after-school programs offered throughout the Coachella Valley, the Rites of Passage program isn’t focused solely on the teens who participate. By involving the students’ families, the program improves the bond between children and parents while also building pride throughout the African-American community.

“It’s about the education of the parents, too,” Austin said. “We offer [parents] support groups as well. We talk about issues parents have that relate to being an effective parent.”

“It’s a very intensive program,” she added. “It takes a great deal of planning and sophistication. … Our goal is to make it not look so clinical.”

It may appear informal, but that’s by design. Countless hours of planning behind the scenes are needed to create a casual and welcoming hub in 7,800 square feet of space. The building features comfortable areas to relax, a commercial kitchen, a computer lab, meeting rooms, and classrooms featuring artwork and inspirational quotes from Black and African American figures throughout history.

“It’s all centered on the concept of breaking bread. We want to create a brotherhood and a sisterhood they won’t find anywhere else.” — Sandra Austin

A team of 10 full-time employees, along with volunteers, works hard to provide programs immersed in African American culture and a curriculum designed to increase confidence, build self-esteem, and change the dynamic in families often dealing with pain built up over generations.

“One of the most difficult things to deal with is that the trauma that exists in our community is very real,” said Jarvis Williams, director of the boy’s program (Tanaya Hall is the girl’s director). “That trauma has been downplayed in our history. It’s a derivative of slavery. You can see where the old do as I say, not as I do master mentality comes into play in families.

“What we help them do is to re-assess some of their approaches to parenting. Parents who take parenting classes usually go in thinking, ‘I’m a bad parent.’ That’s not what happens here.”

Much of the funding for the program comes from the Mental Health Services Act, passed by California voters in 2004 and funded by a one percent income tax on personal income of more than $1 million per year. The act, enacted as Proposition 63, addresses a broad continuum of prevention, early intervention, and service needs and provides funding for infrastructure, technology, and training for the community mental health system.

Now in its 11th year in the Coachella Valley, BRAAF is entering its second year based in Palm Springs. A move from Palm Desert was necessary, Austin said, to expand the program’s reach further west. The staff is currently recruiting its next group of teens and their families from both the desert and Banning.

The boy’s group meets three days a week throughout the school year. The girl’s group meets four days a week. Transportation is provided, as are meals and snacks. Parents who participate will find on-site daycare offered during their five-week portion of the program. They are also encouraged to attend monthly meet-ups designed to provide a fun, socially interactive, and culturally relevant experience for adults only.

Recently, 40 program participants were treated to an eight-day East Coast trip. They toured Howard University, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials, and other important venues.

“It’s all centered on the concept of breaking bread,” Austin said. “We want to create a brotherhood and a sisterhood they won’t find anywhere else.”

More information: To apply for the BRAAF program, African-American families in the Coachella Valley can contact Jarvis Williams or Tanaya Hall at 760-674-1155. An online application can be found here. The BRAAF Facebook page is here.


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