Fueled by personal experience, Yasmine Arrington ’15 is building a brighter future for children of incarcerated parents.
By Kyra Gemberling ’14
It’s been a long journey, but Yasmine Arrington ’15 can honestly say she’s forgiven her father.
The Washington, D.C., native hadn’t seen Tony Ray Arrington for nearly 15 years before they were reunited her first year at Elon University. At the time, he was working as a cook near campus after just getting out of prison. In fact, Tony has been in and out of prison for burglary and other crimes throughout most of his daughter’s life, causing financial strain on his family and deepening a void in Arrington’s life—she regrets missing daddy-daughter time most.
To this day, Tony still struggles to stay out of trouble. He landed himself back in prison this past fall. While one could expect Arrington to be angry and bitter towards her father, it’s just not in her nature. She regularly writes to Tony and speaks to him on the phone, getting to know him and making up for lost time. One of her happiest moments was having her father witness her Elon graduation last May, especially because she didn’t think he would make it.
“It’s disappointing when he finds himself in these predicaments, but at the same time, I’m thankful to know who my father is and have the ability to talk to him,” she says. “We have a mutual understanding that we love each other, and that’s what matters to me.”
But Arrington’s story isn’t defined by her father’s absence. Even after her mother passed away her first year of high school, Arrington has always found a way to rise above loss. These experiences were merely springboards to launch what is arguably her most important project to date, and the one she holds closest to her heart: ScholarCHIPS, a nonprofit organization she founded that provides college scholarships and a support network for children of incarcerated parents.
Choosing the path to success
ScholarCHIPS, which has received honors from Teen Vogue and BET, started as part of Arrington’s Gold Award project for her Girl Scout troop her senior year of high school. She wanted to establish a forum to inform the community about the struggles of children with incarcerated parents, and to encourage donations to a scholarship fund for them. The Washington Post published an article about her efforts and donations started pouring in, giving viability to what Arrington once considered a dream.
But her work had only just begun. Arrington spent the next two years establishing ScholarCHIPS as a permanent organization. She applied for grants to assist with startup costs, organized volunteers, planned and held community events, engaged with a public relations firm and more, all while applying for college and securing scholarships of her own. Even during her first year at Elon, ScholarCHIPS was never far from Arrington’s mind, as she continued to raise funds and promote the organization.
In fall 2012, her efforts paid off. ScholarCHIPS presented its first four $2,500 scholarships and four $250 book awards, and it established a mentorship program for recipients. In January 2013, ScholarCHIPS was incorporated in the District of Columbia, and in October 2014, it received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation. The organization now operates under the leadership of a seven-person volunteer board of directors who work directly with Arrington. It celebrated its first set of college graduates this past fall and expects a few more scholars to cross the stage in the spring.
“I knew from the beginning that Yasmine was someone special who was put on Earth for a special reason,” says Vida Anderson, who led Arrington’s Girl Scout troop and now serves as board chair for ScholarCHIPS. “She has a mission of great social responsibility. I believe that with Yasmine at the helm, this organization will grow even further in its influence on society—it is desperately needed in this country due to the increasing number of children with one or both parents in prison.”
According to a 2010 report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, 54 percent of inmates in the U.S. are parents with children under the age of 17, including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. Roughly 2.7 million children in the country have an incarcerated parent. This reality only fuels Arrington’s desire to continue developing her nonprofit.
Pursuing all passions
In 2015, Arrington received a slew of prestigious awards that will continue to pave the way for the organization for many years. In the spring, she received $15,000 as a distinguished recipient of the Samuel Huntington Public Service Award, as well as $10,000 from the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities. In the fall, she received the Peace First Prize, which awards $25,000 over two years, and the JM Kaplan Fund’s J.M.K. Innovation Prize, which awards up to $175,000 for three years. On the latter, Arrington was one of 10 recipients chosen from thousands of applicants. These two record-setting fellowships allowed Arrington to officially become full-time executive director of ScholarCHIPS in January 2016. “I am tremendously excited to see Yasmine make strides in this organization that were never possible before, now that she has more resources and time to devote,” Anderson says. “When she worked [for ScholarCHIPS] part-time, she had amazing outcomes, so I can’t wait to see what she’ll do now.”
Arrington credits her alma mater for helping her develop the skills she needed to accomplish her goals. As a strategic communications and history double major, Arrington honed her writing, public speaking and analysis skills in the classroom. She took advantage of co-curricular opportunities to explore her professional and personal passions. She participated in the Center for Leadership’s LEAD program, the Gospel Choir, the 2015 Ghana Periclean Scholars, the Elon College Fellows and the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., to name a few. “I found Elon to be an incredibly supportive community,” Arrington says. “I established so many great relationships during my time at Elon—it is truly a home away from home for me.”
In particular, Arrington is grateful to her campus mentors, including Assistant Professor of History Amy Johnson, who she had for “Introduction to Caribbean History” her first semester. “Yasmine arrived at Elon with passion, motivation and a sense of self-worth,” Johnson says. “It truly sets her apart that she is able to overcome her personal obstacles to achieve so much. I am happy to be a partner in her joy.”
Since graduating from Elon, Arrington divides her time between various pursuits in addition to ScholarCHIPS, ranging from plus size modeling to cultivating her dream of becoming a TV talk show host. She is pursuing a Master’s of Divinity at Howard University. Her faith has been profoundly important to her since she was young, as it has helped her get through challenging times. Religious values were instilled in her by her maternal grandmother, Veronica Wright, who raised her and her two younger brothers in their father’s absence. “One of the biggest motivators for me is my goal of allowing my grandmother to retire, and to retire well,” Arrington says. “She’s been such an amazing caretaker to me and my brothers, and I want to give her back everything she has given us.”
But according to Wright, watching her granddaughter overcome all obstacles and beat the odds has been one of the greatest gifts she could receive. She regards Arrington as a “millennial Mother Teresa,” emphasizing the power of choice behind Arrington’s success. “She could’ve gone down another path,” Wright says. “She could’ve been a statistic herself. But she has the will and determination to change society, and I plan on continuing to be there every step of the way to encourage and support her.”