How many people get to say that they have a job that leaves them totally fulfilled each and every day—a job that allows them to make a difference in the lives of many? Sharon Content is living this dream as the founder and president of the nonprofit organization Children of Promise.
Born to native Trinidadian parents, Content was raised in Queens. She said, “Education was always very important, and once I graduated college, it was like, ‘OK, so what are you going to do?’” Content received her degree at Howard University, and after graduating, Content worked as a budget analyst for a major Wall Street investment bank. “Wall street at the time was the hot, sexy place to be,” said Content. However, she made such a drastic change in career paths because she needed to feel more fullfilled.
She explains it as finding her calling. She said, “After working there [on Wall Street] for five years, I decided it really just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I didn’t feel the fulfillment or the satisfaction or gratification at the end of the day.” After she came to that conclusion, she knew that she wanted to enter the nonprofit sector but did not know where. So she floated around, bringing her gifts and skills to a number of organizations and gaining experience from each one. Content’s first opportunity in the nonprofit field was as a director of an alternative to incarceration program (ATI) in Brooklyn. With this organization, she was able to work with at-risk youth, teaching them about business and finance. She said that after her time with the ATI program, “I totally found my calling—working with young people. I knew this was it. And I loved it.”
She then worked with more traditional after-school programs like the Boys and Girls Club of America, where she was a chief operating officer over the 15 sites across the South Bronx, and the Girl Scouts of America. “I was able to use my finance background in the nonprofit sector while working with young people. And from there, I decided I wanted to form my own.”
Content knew from the beginning that she wanted to work with organizations that focused their efforts on issues that affected urban communities; so after making the decision to found her own nonprofit, she drew on her experiences to focus on an issue that she describes as being kept in the dark.
Children of Promise (COP), now entering its fifth year, is a nonprofit after-school and summer program that targets children who have an incarcerated parent. The program aims to reduce the ongoing stigma that comes along with families dealing with incarcerated loved ones. It also strives to provide a structured environment that allows for the children in these situations to express themselves openly and without judgement. “I wanted to form an organization that I felt worked with young people, providing a quality service. I found a population that I believe was pretty much invisible, a population that I felt society really didn’t think about,” said Content.
From the outside looking in, COP appears to be very similar to traditional after-school or summer programs. Children from ages 8 to 18 participate in art and music classes taught by counselors. They go on great summer trips and enjoy the company of their friends. But what COP provides that other after-school or summer provides do not is mental health services. Mental health services are infused in the program and serve as a very vital part of the organization’s work with the children.
COP is also a licensed mental health clinic. Each child receives one-on-one attention that allows for them to speak to someone about their feelings, issues and family. This also provides the children with someone who is able to advocate for them even outside of the program. Content explains that they often have to go into schools and say, “Listen, it is not just that this child is acting out. Let me tell you want is going on with this family,” and from there, the children that they represent are able to get the attention they need to curb that “bad behavior” or other symptoms that go along with missing a parent that is incarcerated. COP also aids the caregivers and guardians in caring for their children and dealing with the loved one who is incarcerated. They work with other nonprofits and volunteer organizations that give referrals to COP.
“I am just as passionate today as I was five years ago,” said Content. Her dream is to grow, to be able to branch out and have Children of Promise in more cities and states where there is a concentration of people dealing with this issue. Content said, “COP-South Bronx, Georgia or Philadelphia is what I hope for.” She urges society to pay attention to children dealing with such traumatic experiences and to not be afraid to seek outside help. “Our children are the ones being written off, suspended or expelled,” she said, and COP’s mission is to provide them with the quality services that will help them deal with feelings of loss, shame and the stigmas attached to having a parent who is incarcerated.