A committed educator for a unique new program
Middle school is when children of incarcerated parents face some of their biggest challenges. We knew it would take a fresh new approach to help them thrive during early adolescence. So when we developed GEM, Gaining Empowerment in Middle School, we knew we needed a dedicated professional educator to launch the program.
Meet Brandi Walker, GEMS Manager and Instructor
Prior to joining COCI, Ms. Walker spent nearly a decade in education. She brings a unique insight into the needs of children of incarcerated parents because she experienced that loss in her own childhood.
With her experience in Houston schools and her passion for the students we serve, she will now spearhead the launch of our new GEMS program.
Ms. Walker sat down with Ken Wells, COCI President and CEO to answer a few questions about herself and her goals for the program.
Ken Wells: Welcome to COCI. What first attracted you to the GEMS program?
Brandi Walker: When I learned about COCI and the GEMS program, I was so excited! I already knew about the No More Victims program and believed it was doing amazing work with high school students who experienced parental incarceration. Because I was working at the middle school level, I wondered what kind of impact you would have if you could help give students a sense of direction before they went on to high school.
Ken Wells: Tell us about yourself.
Brandi Walker: I am a mother of 4, married to my best friend for 18 years. I have my own business, Delish Catering & Events. I am very active in my children’s’ lives and in my church as well.
Ken Wells: You've said that working with children of incarcerated parents is a kind of mission for you. Why?
Brandi Walker: Because I was that child. I was raised by my grandparents. My dad was in and out of jail for most of my adolescence. My grandparents didn’t have an education beyond 8th grade so they really weren’t able to guide me academically – all they knew was to stay out of trouble and work hard. If it had not been for teachers, mentors, church workers who poured into me and exposed me to different things outside of the four walls of my community, my life could have been drastically different.
GEMS allows me to directly impact students who have had some of the same experiences I did and to be an example for them that your circumstance doesn’t define your future.
Ken Wells: What in your professional background prepared you for this?
Brandi Walker: I have worked in education since 2011, first as a teacher and then as a Wraparound Specialist, which meant I worked with community partners to meet the needs of our at-risk students and their families. Those two aspects showed me clearly that kids can’t learn if they are hungry, unsure where they are going to live or under too much stress.
Ken Wells: You are from Houston and you have worked extensively with at-risk youths. How great is the need for middle school programs in our city?
Brandi Walker: The need is beyond great! Early education in elementary schools and high school programs get a lot of attention, as they should, but sometimes it seems like we forget about our middle schoolers.
However, this is one of the most crucial times of a child’s life. Not only are they taking a big step academically, they are also maturing and transitioning from childhood to adolescence. They are experiencing a myriad of conflicting and confusing emotions. Because of the stress in their lives, children of incarcerated parents are really at high risk during middle school. If we can reach them with GEMS and teach them coping skills and techniques that can inherently become a part of their make-up, how much more successful would they be?
Ken Wells: As you are preparing for classes to start next month, what goals do you hope to bring to GEMS?
Brandi Walker: First, I want our students to be in a position to do better and excited come to class - not just show up because it is on their schedule.
Second, I want us to build a bridge with the students’ parents and gain their trust and work together to create a “village of support” for each student.
Finally, we absolutely must be consistent in our efforts and teaching. Students will not benefit from this program unless they know we seriously and honestly care about their well-being.
Ken Wells: What about you would surprise people when they learn it?
Brandi Walker: How much I love to cook. When I left home, I couldn’t boil water and what got me started was, when my husband and I got married, our wedding cake was so bad, I said, “I can do better than that.” So, I taught myself how to bake and cook. In some ways I think it is a way to honor my grandmother, who was an incredible cook.