Community Care Development Network, city of Birmingham serve up second chances for nontraditional students

Birmingham, Ala. — At 17, Amnisty Penn has already encountered some pretty significant bumps in life.

Soon after she became a teenager, her mom went to prison, and Amnisty went to foster care. By the time mother and daughter were reunited four years ago at the Lovelady Center in Birmingham, Amnisty had some behavior issues — issues that were aggravated by prescribed medications that were supposed to help.

“I was all wonky,” she said.

But then, something went right — thanks to the Community Care Development Network.

Amnisty first encountered the organization through its youth mentoring program, which “helped me to control some of those feelings I had built up.”

Last year, she also went through the organization’s Inspire Education Program, which offers nontraditional students help with everything from GED preparation to the skills they need to succeed at work and in life.

Funding for Inspire came from the city of Birmingham and its BOLD program, which is aimed at expanding economic opportunity for local businesses and residents.

BOLD stands for Building Opportunities for Lasting Development. Over the past four years, the city has invested more than $3 million in BOLD programs that expand opportunities, partnering with existing community organizations that have a proven track record of success.

The Community Care Development Network counts Amnisty as one of its successes.

She is not only on track to get her online diploma but also has a job at the organization’s facility in Center Point. She assists clients with everything from applications to childcare. She also has plans for the future: She wants to go to college and study early childhood education. “I want to work with kids,” she said. “I like the idea of being able to help kids on the beginning of their journey.”

Tamika Holmes, the founder and director of Community Care Development Network, relates to students like Amnisty — and it’s not just because Holmes has a big heart. It’s because she has a good memory.

“I actually grew up like many of my students,” Holmes said. “I have walked that same path.”

Holmes came from poverty, where she saw family dysfunction, addiction issues and even homelessness at times. She married young, had children and did not graduate from high school.

But if Holmes has faced many of the same obstacles as her students, she also offers proof that those obstacles can be overcome.

Despite the barriers she faced, Holmes got a GED, went to Lawson State, eventually earned two master’s degrees and is working on a doctorate degree. But she never lost sight of those who were struggling.

Her organization began as a youth mentoring program based at Woodlawn United Methodist Church. She later branched out to provide food, clothing, and other assistance to families in need, and that remains a key part of the work at Community Care Development Network. Last year, the organization provided that kind of assistance to almost 7,000 households.

But with the city’s help, she has ramped up programs to help people escape poverty by getting better skills and jobs. “BOLD funding has been life changing,” Holmes said.

In some cases during the pandemic, clients came to get assistance because they’d lost their jobs, lost their home, and maybe moved back in with their parents. By enrolling in Inspire, they were able to get back on their feet in a better position than they were before COVID-19.

Partnering with Lawson State, Holmes helps students further their learning and get placed in jobs in the medical field and other industries. But Inspire provides them a critical foundation for success.

“We talk to the employers, and what we hear is not that their prospective employees don’t have skills,” she said. “It’s that they need the soft skills to be successful and stick with a job — things like time management, communication, conflict resolution, problem solving.”

Her teams provide coaching and they also lead role-playing exercises to help students develop and sharpen those workplace skills. Last year, 60 students went through Inspire and set out on a new path to success.

As one of those graduates, Amnisty encourages new clients to go through the program to invest in themselves and in their future.

“It may look really bad in the beginning,” Amnisty said. “It can be 10 times better in the ending.”