Three out of four students in the Pine Bluff School District are eligible for free or reduced meals.
TOPPS provides daily meals to more than 2,600 children year-round.
Unemployment among black youth in Jefferson County is 47%--significantly higher than the overall unemployment rate of 7.6%.
TOPPS is the only community-based organization in the immediate area that offers job training, mentoring and other support programs to students over age 14.
While Arkansas ranks among the lowest states in the nation for student test scores and graduation rates, Pine Bluff students perform lower on state literacy and math tests and are less likely to graduate than students outside the area.
All of the students who participate in TOPPS’ DREAMS program graduate from high school and are either accepted into college or join the military.
Raised by grandparents after his mother became ill with MS, Brandon Jolly was a shy kid who always sat at the back of the classroom and didn’t want to talk to anyone. That changed in 3rd grade when he entered Little TOPPS and later joined “Moving Forward,” TOPPS’ mentoring program for young men.
Meeting every Saturday until they graduated from high school, Brandon and the other boys met successful businessmen, engaged in team-building activities and received coaching in a variety of life skills such as how to knot a tie and the proper use of dining utensils.
“The mentors taught us how to think critically and laid a foundation for what it takes to be a man,” Jolly said. “It was a brilliant idea, to keep young black men off the streets so we couldn’t get involved in things we shouldn’t be involved in.”
Jolly, 26, now works at Purdue University as a Residence Education Coordinator and is entering a PhD program in Higher Education Leadership. High school friends who weren’t mentored have lives that look a lot different from his today, he said. “My drive to want to continue to succeed, to talk to people, to always look my best and be ready to perform—that’s what TOPPS instilled in me.”
Devontae Brown struggled to pay attention in school, began talking in class and stopped turning in homework and schoolwork assignments after his parents divorced.
With his father gone and his mother working two jobs to support the family, he might have joined a gang like some of his best friends. Like them, he might have gone to juvenile detention in 7th and 8th grade for gang-related robberies and assaults or found himself serving an adult prison term for even worse crimes.
Devontae says there was one reason he didn’t go down that path: TOPPS.
“They had video games, extracurricular activities; they taught us how to cook and spent a lot of time teaching us valuable life skills,” said Devontae, who joined Little TOPPS in the third grade. “It was a safe haven—safe from what was happening on the streets.”
Now 22 and a college graduate, Devontae is paying it forward by serving as a mentor to three high school boys. “Being in Pine Bluff, it’s so easy to get in trouble. One day you’ll be here. The next you’re dead and gone just by getting in with the wrong crowd. But TOPPS is like a really big family. They never leave anyone behind.”