RALEIGH, N.C. — During a grocery-shopping trip seven years ago, Robin Flow came across a group of African-American teenage boys who should have been in school.
As a former police officer, she didn’t shy away from asking why they weren’t in class.
And as a former nurse, she couldn’t resist the urge to help when they said they’d been suspended from school and had nowhere to go.
“That touched my heart,” says Flow, who was out of work at the time. “These young men were destined for trouble.”
She calls the experience a vision from God, and after talking with her husband and her pastor, she began taking steps to start About Face II, a nonprofit providing academic instruction, life skills and community-service opportunities for youth in long-term suspension.
To make it happen, Flow spent about a year taking business classes, researching suspension in the Wake County schools, and setting up shop in space donated by Poplar Springs Christian Church.
When the doors opened in 2004, she welcomed two African-American boys who had been suspended from Garner High School for three months, and brought on about six more kids later in the year.
“One of the kids was making D’s and F’s and by the time he went back he was getting B’s,” Flow says of one of the original two. “Since then, he has graduated and gone to college. The reward is to see the kids go on.”
About Face soon added a program to handle youth coming through the court system and expanded to accept students from throughout Wake County at locations in Garner and Knightdale.
When in full swing, these “alternative-day programs” each handles about 15 youth, who are taught by certified Wake County teachers and receive life-skills training and participate in community-service events with groups like the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and Habitat for Humanity.
Their parents also are required to participate by volunteering at least 12 hours and by completing conflict-resolution training with their kids.
Typically, the kids amass enough academic credits to get promoted to the next grade level on schedule.
In the past six years, only two of the program’s participants have returned to prison, says Flow.
She started the organization with her own money, but quickly received funding from individuals and corporations, as well as from various local and state agencies.
But while the program has seen good results, it also has been a victim of the recession.
Flow was forced to close the Garner alternative-day program a year ago after losing funding from several public sources, including the Wake County Public School System and the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
The Knightdale alternative-day program is still in place, thanks to funding from the Governor’s Crime Commission, Town of Knightdale, Rex Healthcare Care and Progress Energy, and with in-kind support from Now Faith Community Church and others.
And this school year, About Face expanded to operate after-school programs for local elementary and middle-school students.
Funded through the state Department of Public Instruction using federal No Child Left Behind dollars, the two 21st Century Community Learning Centers provide life skills and tutoring aimed at helping students raise their end-of-grade test scores.
About Face has three full-time staff, employs eight contractors and works with a handful of volunteers.
But Flow still is looking for grants and donations to hire back the five employees that worked with teens at the Garner alternative-day program.
“That’s truly my love,” she says of working with suspended teens. “But with the economic times, it’s very tough.”
In the meantime, she will bring her unusual blend of firmness and compassion to the children and youth who find About Face and its opportunities for second chances.
“I have no tolerance for ignorance or excuses,” she says. “Every child can be what they want to be. Some just need more attention than others.”