Today, I learned about J.A.M.E.S. Inc. The letters stand for Just About Mothers Excelling in School. They are a Tulsa-based nonprofit in Oklahoma.
Their mission is to lead expecting and parenting adolescents to self sufficiency. From the beginning, the agency has served male and female prospective young parents. 70 % of their clients are Black, while the others are white, Native American or Hispanic. The assistance J.A.M.E.S. Inc offers varies with their client’s need.
Three events in executive director Alisa Bell’s journey led to her starting and leading the organization. The first was a decision to embrace single motherhood. Bell welcomed her first child, daughter, Latoya, at 15. She was then a student at Tulsa’s Margaret Hudson School that provided education, counseling and healthcare of school-age mothers and child care for their infants. LINK>It was announced in 2017 that the school would close due to financial problems stemming from the loss of state and Tulsa Area United Way funding. For 50 years, they had helped teenage mothers stay in school and raise their kids.
In the course of juggling baby formula, diapers and classes at school, the shortcomings of her children’s father became more apparent to Alisa. “He was on drugs all the time,” Bell recalls. “And the mental health challenges and dysfunction of his family stunned me.” So, she fled their household. At 19, Bell was a single mom of two (her son, James Deandre King, had been born four years after her daughter).
“For pregnant and parenting teens without support, this means when school isn’t convenient or isn’t engaging, they quit. I did not want to be that person,” she said. When she was 23 and James was 5, Bell enrolled at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. The sentiment about young mothers was “if we can just get them through high school, that’s the best we can do,” she recalls. “So, I went to college and saw opportunities on the campus that nobody was telling people about.”
“My original thought was to develop a program to give scholarships to young mothers,” Bell said. In her first year of operation, she gave away one scholarship and focused on raising more money. But in the second year, there were no scholarship applicants. At that stage, she realized that giving grants was only part of the solution for young mothers. They also severely needed mentoring and education about the options available to them, and why they were worth pursuing.
In May 1998, to distance James from the challenges faced in high school, Bell sought the assistance of his paternal grandparents, where he lived briefly. While there, James and his cousin, Darell Steven King, who were both 14 years old, were involved in an altercation that escalated to a handgun being used. Darell fired several shots, one of which struck James in the head and he was now dead.
The following year, she entered graduate school. In a grant writing class, she had an assignment to come up with a plan for a nonprofit. “Out of nowhere, I wrote down the name of an organization: Just About Mothers Excelling in School. (J.A.M.E.S., Inc.),” Bell recalls. “From that day to this day, I have been trying to give James’ life.”
The organization was established in 2006 to encourage and support higher educational aspirations among expecting and parenting teens and adolescents (up to age 24). An early parent herself, Ms. Bell recognized that completion of secondary education alone was unlikely to be enough to provide young parents with the opportunities they desired for themselves and their children. That’s why J.A.M.E.S., Inc. does more. Mental health is a major factor for young parents and families. The focus of the organization expanded in 2014 to provide mental health services, including case management, to its client population. They also include a young parent advisory board.
You can read more about Alisa Bell’s life and efforts here >LINK.