Two people standing in an empty room with desks and chairs while holding up hand made cards.
Tvisha Vanteru, a biomedical engineering major, and Damian Ashjian, a computer science major, took part in the "Milk and Cookies" service-learning project designed to help children whose parents are incarcerated. (Contributed photo.)

VCU honors society wins national award for project focused on supporting children with incarcerated parents

“Working to improve the lives of children of incarcerated parents from the Richmond community was a perfect way to try to help our community,” said Steph Cull, one of the student leaders of VCU’s chapter of Phi Kappa Phi.

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The Virginia Commonwealth University chapter of Phi Kappa Phi, a national honors society, has received an award for a service-learning project that allowed members of the VCU chapter to help support children attending Richmond public schools who have incarcerated parents.

VCU students in PKP worked with Assisting Families of Inmates, an organization that has a trauma-informed support program called “Milk and Cookies.” Through the program, VCU PKP members created 80 motivational cards to give to RPS students who are enrolled in the program.

The project earned the VCU PKP students the Division I Fall 2022 Service Project Award, which was judged by a national and international council of PKP student members and leadership.

Some of the handmade cards read: “You are Loved,” “Today is a Good Day,” “Be You,” “Grow Strong” and “I am Brave, Strong, Smart and Loved.”

“The motto of PKP is ‘Let the love of learning rule humanity,’” said Jacqueline Smith-Mason, Ph.D., senior associate dean and director of academic and faculty affairs in the VCU Honors College and the president of the VCU chapter of Phi Kappa Phi. “When considering a service project aimed at educating VCU students on an issue connected to children, education was essential.”

Smith-Mason said what drove her to take on this project was society’s tendency to not think about how children who have an incarcerated parent are affected.

“As a society, we rarely consider the trauma incarceration has on children whose parents are sent to jail or prison,” Smith-Mason said. “That’s why I thought it would be beneficial to partner with Assisting Families of Inmates to share data and their outstanding work supporting elementary children in Richmond Public Schools.”

The effort was a cross-campus collaboration between Phi Kappa Phi, the Honors College and the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. In addition to the motivational cards, PKP students from the Department of Sociology and the Honors College also collected hats, gloves and stuffed animals for the children.

“Working to improve the lives of children of incarcerated parents from the Richmond community was a perfect way to try to help our community,” said Steph Cull, who received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2022 from VCU and is now a graduate student in the health psychology doctoral program and who helped lead the initiative. “It was an honor to be a part of a service project that benefited local children in need.”

Founded in 1897, Phi Kappa Phi is one of the oldest and most-selective honors societies in the U.S., its territories and the Philippines. More than 300 campuses have chapters with upwards of 25,000 student members.