Three volunteers slosh through John F. Kennedy Park in Richmond as they do each school day. The sounds of hail hitting the thin tin roof of the pavilion almost drown out the soft, squeaking sound of the trash pickers pinching packages of blunt wraps and flattened cans of beer. The brief, but heavy, downpour adds a dramatic flair to the garbage collection session.
“We make sure over the wild weekend, there are no needles left here,” says Bendrick Foster as he looks into the high grass that separates the curved walking paths through the park. “We find drug paraphernalia—straws and plastic that have been used for cocaine.”
Foster and two volunteers head to the play structure, featuring blue, green, and purple poles and a slide, which sits eerily vacant as the water from above splashes. “I get up in here,” Foster says as he sifts through wood chips with his sneakers. “A kid could slide down. Someone’s needle can be up in there.”
The downpour ends just in time for the group to head back to their unofficial headquarters, a set of picnic tables beneath the thin tin roof, which is now partially dry. The sound of hail is replaced by the flapping of a banner that stretches across two of the pillars that support the covering overhead. In the middle of the sign is a fiery-colored phoenix, which Foster says represents his hopes for the park and its surrounding neighborhood.
“The phoenix is rising as we’re leaving our pain behind us,” Foster says.
Foster is the founder of New Life Movement, a nonprofit program through which he and organization volunteers work to intervene when they see students ditching school. They also try to keep the area clean and safe by discouraging people from consuming alcohol and drugs at the park, which sits between an elementary school and a high school. Foster says that he used to contribute to the negativity in the neighborhood before he started his program. “I changed right here on the same corner where I was selling drugs, doing drugs, doing all the things the Bible says don’t do,” he says.
Foster founded the New Life Movement in 2014 with his “safe passages” initiative. Each school day he would walk through the park, keeping an eye out for kids ditching school and people engaging in illegal activities, including littering. If he or other volunteers noticed people consuming drugs and alcohol at the park, they’d walk up and try to convince them to take their business elsewhere, for the sake of the students. He also tried to convince students to go back to class instead of hanging out at the park, or walking the streets. Foster says he broke up his share of after-school fights.
Anti-truancy and mentoring are two of the most visible pieces of New Life’s program. Foster knows firsthand about how easily children, including himself, fall through the cracks, and end up dropping out of school at a young age. Foster says that he doesn’t recall the highest level of education he has—only that he never made it to high school. “[I] didn’t finish school. I said, ‘Forget school. I make more than teachers.’ I didn’t want to be a victim,” he says.
And while he’s never gone to prison, he says he spent time in and out juvenile hall after dropping out of school as a young teen. He says he also spent 45 days in an adult detention camp for a gun charge in 2008. “God put me in a situation where I could not be touched, and gave me a chance to rehabilitate myself,” Foster says of his time in correctional facilities.
Now he’s working in JFK Park to positively intervene before today’s kids fall into the criminal justice system. “I didn’t want the kids to be a victim,” he continues.
Foster says students get discouraged when they struggle with classes or when they start to see that they can make more money on the streets than they can through finishing their education. “I’ve seen a lot of kids,” Foster says. “Maybe it’s a learning disability? Maybe things are moving too fast, and then you just act up.”
By being mainstays in the park, Foster and New Life Movement volunteers hope to address some of the truancy and chronic absenteeism issues that public school districts throughout California are grappling with. State and Contra Costa County reports have found that absenteeism leads to compromised academic achievement, and in some cases involvement in crime.
Foster knows these ideas to be true, and is using his experiences to address an issue that has far-reaching negative effects. “I know that I had a voice,” Foster says, referring to his former bad reputation around the neighborhood. But now he’s hoping to use some of that reputation to get young people’s attention.
“I know I can relate to the youth. I know [because] I was at-risk at one point in my life,” he says.
In 2016, the State Attorney General’s Office released the “In School and on Track” report that analyzed what their office called the “truancy and absentee crisis.” The report mandates that all schools in California submit attendance data to the state Department of Education, including data on “out-of-school suspensions,” which means that the student is sent home as a disciplinary action.
The report found several racial disparities. For example, Native American youth make up less than 1 percent of the total number students in California. However, they exhibit the highest levels of chronic absenteeism, at 16 percent. That’s compared to white students, who are 23 percent of the state’s school population but have the second lowest levels of absenteeism at about 5 percent. Black and Latino students, who are West Contra Costa’s largest groups, also had higher rates of chronic absenteeism than their white peers, at 14 and 6 percent respectively.
The report also points to cases of absenteeism among K-5 students, and says that 75 percent of chronically absent kindergarten and first grade students “did not meet the California state standards in third grade for math and English language arts.”
“Excessive absenteeism in elementary school for any reason … reduces students’ opportunities to learn,” the report states. “[It also] increases their risk of falling behind academically, dropping out of school, and later involvement in the criminal justice system.”
According to Michael Gottfried, an associate professor of education at UC Santa Barbara—who had some of his studies referenced in the report—says that the low attendance trends among K-5 students are often driven by their parents’ behavior. “It’s the parents that are getting kids to and from school,” says Gottfried. “But the kids are the ones who are experiencing this. So they’re learning early on, ‘Hey, I can miss 20 percent of the school year.’”
“That’s problematic for achievement, that’s problematic for kids’ psychological development,” he continues.
Gottfried also argues that once these cycles begin for kids, not only are they difficult to break, but they can also lead to serious issues such as “the lack of employment opportunities, and then the risk of dropout.”
The consequences also extend to other students. “If you miss school, and you come back, and the teacher has to catch you up,” says Gottfried. “And that makes the other kids bored.”
At the local level, a 2016 Contra Costa County grand jury report on truancy in public schools found that West Contra Costa’s school district ranked 46th out of the 58 California counties for attendance. “Out of 180,000 students in the County, 10,000 of them had at least three unexcused absences during the school year,” the report states. “Those who were absent for any reason 10 percent or more of the school year were an even larger number.”
The report pointed to the Student Attendance Review Board and Team (SARB and SART), which were established by the State Department of Education. When administrators notice a student is missing a lot of school, SART staff engage with students and parents to try to address the root of attendance issues.
“The plan may include special tutoring,” the report states. “Or even basics such as providing a bus pass for transportation to and from school.” The SARB members have the power to refer parents and students to mental health or counseling services, and if the poor attendance continues, they may be referred to the county probation, or teen truancy court.
“When it gets to the level of SARB, it means something significant is going on in that student and or family’s life, impeding their ability to go be in school,” says Lindy Khan, a senior program director for the Contra Costa County Office of Education. She’s worked with the countywide SARB board that addresses issues in public and charter schools that are under county jurisdiction.
“It’s not the ideal,” says Khan. “Ideally the teacher meets with the student and or the parent, and figures out the problem. … The SARB and SART and the courts are only there when other interventions have been exhausted.”
Foster is hoping that he and the New Life volunteers can intervene before students and parents are penalized for low attendance or it’s too late to change gears. He has just entered into a formal agreement in the school district to run his program inside schools.
“This allows me to work with kids and their behavior,” Foster says of his community partnership with the district. He says that he will be working with King Elementary and Kennedy High School. He hopes his in-school mentoring will help keep kids in school, and out of the trouble that he found himself in as a teenager.
After he stopped attending school as a young teen, Foster says he began dealing drugs in the neighborhood where he now mentors teenagers, and shoos away the people who make the park unsafe. “You gotta adapt to this park, where people are making thousands and thousands of dollars,” Foster says.
And for him, and many of his peers, adapting meant selling crack cocaine and marijuana. Foster says that he caught his first case after being caught with crack rocks before he was 15 years old, and spent some time in juvenile hall. “They sent me to back-to-back group homes a couple times,” Foster says. “Then you get out and do it again. You get out and say, ‘Hey, I’m finna get back out and get my money again.’”
Along the way, Foster had three daughters and a son, and says that he missed out on being a father to his older children because “he was always trying to get some money, and protect it.”
Foster says that this pattern of getting caught, spending time in a correctional facility—be it a county boy’s ranch or a detention facility—continued until 2014, when he returned to Richmond after moving to Arizona with one his children’s mothers.
“I went to my mother’s house, and that’s when I started rehabilitating, just listening to gospel music,” Foster says. “I needed something to change. I stopped cussing, I stopped smoking and drinking, and I stopped hanging, and I stopped selling dope.”
He says that though he came back to California with several pounds of weed, he could no longer sell drugs in good conscience, and gave the rest of his inventory away. “I just couldn’t do it no more,” Foster says.
From then on, he says, he had time to think and to take stock of his environment. “You take your late night walk,” Foster says. “I used to walk through this park before all this structure was here. Just walking around trying figure what we can we do better in this park, what can I bring back to my community?”
According to Foster, these experiences make him an invaluable asset to the school district, because he has the cultural knowledge necessary to relate to students, who are living in the aftermath of decades of the drug trade and crime. “I’m not teaching these kids about education,” Foster says about his in-school mentoring plans. “I’m teaching them about behavior. I’m teaching them about drugs and alcohol, these things that aren’t good for them.”
New Life Movement became a formal 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2016, and Foster says that his entrance into Richmond’s nonprofit sphere has been new for him. He felt that he “got stereotyped” during his first brushes with professional community organizers during the JFK Park remodel in 2015. He says that helped plan the design of park including small light fixtures, and a mural with New Life Movement’s logo, a phoenix, in the center of it.
“A lot of them were fighting against me,” Foster says. “I came in there with a lot of passion and fire, and knowing what needed to be done in this community.”
He also says that although some folks had their apprehensions, his feels that his work at the park speaks for itself and his interactions with district staff while conceiving the in-school mentorship program have been positive. “They were more looking at my work. … I’m amazed because my background wasn’t too healthy back in the day,” Foster says.
And while Foster handles the content of the program, he has an ally in Billy Zeier, who handles administrative tasks like fundraising and organizing New Life’s board of directors. Zeier and Foster met while they were both part of the JFK Park renovation team.
Zeier had previously served as the executive director of the Boys and Girls’ Club in El Sobrante, and says that during the celebration for his last day of work there, Foster approached him about becoming a board member for New Life Movement. Zeier readily accepted the invitation, and a year and a half later was promoted to president of the board.
“We just maintained the relationship knowing that the whole endgame was not just rebuilding a park,” Zeier says. The pair’s goal is to bring a resource center to JFK Park, so that the transformation is more than surface level. “That’s a good start,” Zeier continue, speaking of the renovations, “but the goal is to be able to implement programming, have people in there with direct services, and be able to do good things for our people.”
Zeier handles the administrative tasks that keep New Life legally “aboveboard,” like getting insurance and maintaining enough people on the board to be a viable nonprofit. Zeier also handles grants and other financial contributions, including donations from his solar panel company, Clean Point Energy. While Zeier helps with the tasks that help New Life maintain its legal legitimacy, he emphasizes the importance of the balance between the business side of New Life Movement and its community presence.
“You can’t reproduce 30 years of really walking through them streets,” Zeier says, noting that Foster’s street credit is a powerful tool. “The leaders inside those communities are saying, ‘We ain’t doing this shit no more.’ So almost like a mob boss, but for good.”
Back at the park, it’s little after 3 o’clock, and Kennedy High School students are walking en masse across the street from school towards the park. Foster stands on the sidewalk near the bus stop toward the front of the grass and picnic tables, while another volunteer stands in the middle of the park, a few feet away from the small pavilion with the tin roof.
This is a daily part of the program’s “youth safety” program, where he keeps an eye out for kids who are ditching school. Foster also says that he’s intervened in a number of after-school fights, and that he and volunteers, as always, are on the lookout for an sketchy adults that could pose a threat to the students while in transit through the park on their ways home.
As the kids reach the park, they are met with daps, and words of encouragement from Foster.
“Hey, how was school?” Foster asks. “What’s goin’ on with that job?”
About thirty minutes later, the momentarily bustling park is now quiet, with only parents and toddlers and dog-walkers remaining. After taking a last lap around the park to check in on lingering students, Foster and Wolff are ready to take the New Life Movement banner down, and roll it up for the weekend. Next Monday, he and his volunteers will be back, to deal with ongoing problems like littered bottles of alcohol and blunt wrap packaging. They’ll also try to speak encouraging words to the students and give them a new, positive outlook on life.
“My success is seeing more kids graduate from school,” Foster says. “I just wanted to be that extra piece in their life, and that’s what I became.”