Meet the innovator reaching those considered unreachable
By Nancy Brown, American Heart Association CEO
This is supposed to be a story about an inner-city Boston organization that helps economically disadvantaged children prepare to join the school system by age 5.
So you wouldn't expect it to include GED classes and voter registration forms.
Or trips to the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
But that's the thing about this story. It repeatedly swerves in ways you wouldn't expect because that's how Cherie Craft gets things done.
Cherie is the founder and executive director of Smart from the Start, the nonprofit group at the center of this story. And while the ultimate aim of this story is spotlighting the lives improved by her organization, everything the group does resonates more once you know the full story.
And that story begins a few miles from the headquarters of Smart from the Start, in the Warren Gardens housing project, in the row house at 68 Dabney Street. In the home of Bill and Dolores Craft.
Cherie's father, Bill, moved to Washington, D.C., with his family after his grandfather was lynched in Georgia. When Bill was 12, his father died. Almost two years later, Bill dropped out of school, got a fake birth certificate and joined the Marines. He served with distinction in Korea.
He settled in Boston and fell in love with Dolores. They married and had three children; Cherie is the youngest.
Dolores earned a high school diploma and a certificate in secretarial work. Once she became a mother, she became involved in METCO, a busing program started by parents and administrators to help integrate Boston schools. She worked there for 30 years.
When Cherie was growing up, her family's home was the heartbeat of Warren Gardens.
As one of the few with two parents, it was where many kids went for help with homework. Or a meal.
If a single mom needed help with her child, she sent them to Bill.
Anyone needing a few bucks to pay a bill before payday could go to Bill.
If it was too hot to be inside but all the neighborhood kids wanted to watch "Happy Days," Bill strung together enough extension cords to watch TV on the sidewalk.
Then there were the Sunday night family gatherings.
The Crafts served a feast, followed by conversations about civil rights. The flashpoints in Cherie's youth were integrating schools and beaches. Kids joined these conversations.
Bill sought opportunities to teach the next generation about the pioneers whose legacy they were continuing, including Nat Turner, Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells, Madam C.J. Walker and Sojourner Truth. Lessons went from historical to cultural. Cherie can still close her eyes and hear Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" about a lynching, or cite lines from the poem "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou.
Through METCO, Cherie rode a bus an hour each way to school in the wealthy suburb of Wellesley.
When she first saw the big houses, she felt sorry for kids who lived there because they were so far from their friends. They probably didn't gather in the streets for double Dutch or stickball or block parties like kids in Warren Gardens.
Cherie enjoyed growing up with a foot in both worlds. In high school, though, the contrast became stark.
Teens in Wellesley discussed colleges and career paths. They were striving for success.
Teens in Roxbury talked about avoiding gangs and drugs. They were striving for survival.
The dichotomy eventually wore on her.
"It's hard to worry about SATs when you're going to funerals and friends are having babies," she said.
Examples came from within 68 Dabney Street.
Her older sister got hooked on drugs. So did a cousin who might as well have been another brother. He was seven years older than Cherie. Bill and Dolores took him in as an infant because they knew his parents couldn't properly raise him.
When he was around 13, his birth mother wanted him back. Within two years, Cherie was visiting him in juvenile prisons and work camps.
Cherie went to Suffolk University in Boston to become a lawyer.
In a freshman pre-law class, a professor encouraged students to hang out at the juvenile courtroom near campus. He wanted them to see how a court runs.
What Cherie saw was case after case resembling the saga of someone from her neighborhood, including her cousin.
This led to her first epiphany: "By the time they get to court, it's too late."
She switched her major to social work, eventually earning a bachelor's and master's in counseling psychology from Cambridge College. She worked her way up to director of pediatric family support programs at Boston City Hospital. Her next stop was the Head Start Program.
Around that time, Boston mayor Thomas Menino became interested in eliminating the academic achievement gap – the difference in learning ability among kids. Rather than trying to close it later, he wanted to eliminate it from the start.
Because the gap was widest among kids raised in the toughest circumstances, he wanted to support organizations helping those kids. Then he learned there weren't any.
Menino decided to start one. Cherie was highly recommended to run it.
She loved the concept. She just feared it would come wrapped in red tape.
Her skepticism was justified by her job interview. A committee of about a dozen people asked theoretical questions such as, "Why do you think people are poor?" She withdrew from consideration.
A few weeks later, the mayor invited her for a one-on-one chat.
Figuring she might as well speak her mind, she told Menino these problems couldn't be solved by guidelines created by bureaucrats who think they know what the inner-city needs.
She pitched a "two-generation approach" based on stabilizing the parents as a first step toward helping their children.
After all, how can kids learn if they lack a safe place to live or food to eat? How can parents read to their kids if they themselves can't read?
It stems from another epiphany: "A parent is a child's first teacher. If we're going to offer social services to the child, we need to offer social services to the entire family."
Menino offered her a deal. He would raise and sustain seed money if Cherie agreed to run it for six months.
"If nobody affects your planning, will you stay?" he asked.
More than 12 years later, she's still there and the City of Boston still provides funding to the organization, thanks to strong support from current Mayor Marty Walsh.
Smart from the Start grew from a city program into its own nonprofit within a few years.
"Preventing the achievement gap" remains the second element in its mission statement. First is "family support and community engagement."
That's why Smart from the Start offers GED classes and lessons in English as a second language. It's why there are lessons in financial literacy and entrepreneurial training, and voter registration forms and advocacy training. It also offers group therapy for mental health problems. It's officially called an "Address Stress" class, a label that avoids the stigma of acknowledging a mental health issue.
A typical family served by Smart is homeless or lives in public housing. Half the adults lack a GED or high school diploma. Three-fourths are unemployed. Some are in gangs. Some kids come from child protective services care.
"We serve families others deem impossible to reach. The families with incredible strengths but lacking the right combination of tools, resources and support," Cherie said.
The latest batch of kids coming through the program scored between the 80th and 100th percentile on school readiness. Extensive baseline testing was never done in Boston, but Cherie said similar populations elsewhere score in the 30th percentile.
The city continues to provide about $200,000 per year to Smart from the Start. Donations from family foundations and individuals help maintain a $1.7 million budget.
Cherie half-jokingly said, "We were all raised poor, so we know how to stretch a dollar out of 15 cents." Still, she seeks more donations so her group can reach more people. She estimates Smart reaches only about 20% of those who need its services.
I'm happy to say that my organization, the American Heart Association, is helping.
We recently donated $250,000 to Smart from the Start through our new Social Impact Fund, which is dedicated to investing in local entrepreneurs, small businesses and organizations that are breaking down the social and economic barriers to healthy lives.
Cherie plans to expand lessons in health and well-being, such as talking about ways to control blood pressure and blood sugar, and offering tips on healthy eating and nutrition. Such lifestyle changes can reduce risks of heart disease and stroke, thus improving and extending lives.
Another important patron is the D.C. Housing Authority.
A few years ago, folks at the Department of Housing and Urban Development connected authority officials with Cherie. That led to a pilot program fully funded by the D.C. Department of Health in the Woodland Terrace Public Housing project.
"We knew it was replicable," Cherie said. "We just never had the opportunity to do it."
The big picture is fascinating. But how about a close-up view of an impactful program?
Asked to pick one, Cherie couldn't choose between two: the "Family Leadership" group she personally facilitates in Boston and D.C.; and "Focusing on Fatherhood," which was recently featured on ABC's "Nightline."
Look closely and you'll see that both are rooted in 68 Dabney Street.
Everyone in the leadership program has been nominated by someone else.
Others see potential in these people that they themselves often don't.
It traces to another epiphany: "They've found a way to not get completely crushed by all that's happened in their life and they're still trying. That's a strength."
So Cherie targets what they're doing right and tries building on it. Such as, "You took two buses and a train to get here? You're resourceful!" Or, "You've got five kids in cornrows that look like they were done in a salon. You're gifted!"
In leadership program meetings, Cherie reframes entire conversations. Rather than hashing out problems, talking about successes gives Cherie opportunities to say "thank you" or "congratulations."
"Those are words these people may not hear from anyone else," she said. "It leads to setting goals they never felt were possible. They begin to feel empowered, respected, loved and honored. That's what keeps them coming back and growing."
All her life, Cherie has been playing the game of perception versus reality. Remember, her dad dropped out of school at 13 but she considers him the smartest man she ever knew. Likewise, kids in Wellesley thought the worst of Roxbury, but to her it was a fun, loving place.
"I know that when people make judgments and assumptions, it becomes pervasive. People begin to think, 'I'm not worthy, I'm not capable.' But they are!" she said. "They may not have money, but they can be rich in other ways. Once folks figure out who they are, they have a better idea of what they can achieve. Once you believe better, you can do better."
At Woodland Terrace in D.C., Cherie noticed too many young men cycling in and out of their children's lives.
She viewed them not as irresponsible dads, but as young men failed by society when they were boys. They didn't know how to be good fathers because nobody ever showed them.
Cherie had a great father. So, she copied from his playbook, introducing these young men to the civil rights movement and African American role models – "heroes that look like them," she said. Then she took them to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to learn about others who struggled and persevered.
Success stories include:
- Matt, who grew up in a gang and deep into drugs, was an absent dad until his daughter was 3 and her mom was killed. He came to Smart because he wanted to get custody of his daughter, which meant first cleaning up his life. Five years later, he's closing in on a college degree and a job on Cherie's team.
- Preston was 15 when he became a dad. At 26, he has three kids and has finally become involved in their lives, regularly reading and playing with them. Cherie recently attended his wedding.
"It's impossible to find a more marginalized population than these young men," she said. "Helping them find their way and achieve success is the most inspirational thing I've done."
Cherie's personal and professional lives practically run together.
She has five kids. Three weren't born to Cherie but are hers just the same.
Her children include a 26-year-old daughter who will soon graduate from Duke School of Law, a 23-year-old son who just authored a book about young men and depression, a daughter who works at Smart and a son who graduated from the Year Up training program and is pursuing a career in technology. The two youngest among those have been with Cherie since they were infants. So has a 5-year-old who arrived at Smart when her mom was expecting. The baby's mother had endured a difficult life in foster care and she didn't want the same for her daughter. At 1, the baby was put up for adoption. Cherie sought someone on her team to raise the baby. When none volunteered, she did.
"I had to break the cycle," she said.
As for the circumstances behind her other adoptees? They were family already.
They're her cousin's children.
A version of this story also appeared on Thrive Global.
If you have questions or comments about this story, please email [email protected].