No More Victims, Inc.ís Story of Commitment Fuels Lifetime Television Network Movie
June 1, 2005
When actress Jami Gertz chose to portray the founder of No More Victims, Inc. in the Lifetime Television movie Fighting the Odds: The Marilyn Gambrell Story, she asked the teens in the program at Houston's Smiley High School for a few pointers.
They said, "You're going to have to cry – a lot." Gambrell smiles. In Gambrell's defense, on some days it would be hard for anyone to keep from crying. Each day, Gambrell and her partner, Perry Beasley, reach out to dozens of hurt and angry children with incarcerated parents who live in a Houston ghetto so rended by crime, poverty and drug abuse that they cannot imagine escaping.
The movie, which had its premier broadcast on August 22, is based upon the experiences of Beasley (portrayed by Ernie Hudson), Gambrell, and the dozens of Smiley High School teens whose stories – conveyed with a casualness that reveals how disturbingly common they are – had originally inspired the two former Harris County parole officers who had grown tired of watching their clients cycle through jail while their children were neglected and abused.
The two quit their jobs to form No More Victims, Inc. (NMVI), an innovative program of educational and emotional support to help these children cope with having an incarcerated parent and divert them from their own paths of crime, substance abuse and desperation. Reymundo Rodríguez, the project's program officer and liaison at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, said that when Gambrell initially approached him at the foundation, she didn't have much more than the idea and a rock solid determination to help these children.
Marilyn and the No More Victims, Inc. program is the best example of a foundation giving a grant because someone has a good idea and is passionate about seeing it achieved. We were fortunate to work with Marilyn and provide technical assistance to expand the program. Five years later, she is receiving well-deserved recognition for a terrific program that has made a difference in the lives of these youths."
With funding commitments totaling $315,240 over three years from both the Hogg Foundation and the Houston Endowment, No More Victims, Inc. set up its pilot program at M.B. Smiley High School in Houston's North Forest Independent School District in 2000.
The choice of M.B. Smiley High School was a good fit. Of the roughly 1,500 students enrolled at Smiley, 40 percent have a parent who has either been, or currently is, in prison. The school itself is surrounded by a community afflicted with high levels of delinquency, alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancies, violent crime and gang activity. NMVI consists of daily sessions in which students gather for group discussions, followed by a curriculum that teaches them how to cope with their problems, resolve interpersonal conflicts, and channel their emotions into constructive endeavors and away from violence, addiction and gangs.
Statistics indicate that these children are five times more likely to end up being incarcerated themselves, and are far more susceptible to substance abuse, behavioral problems, school dropouts, gangs and teen pregnancy," Gambrell said. Students presenting severe psychological/psychiatric needs outside the scope of the curriculum are referred to an appropriate mental health professional, with NMVI staff even arranging transportation to appointments and appropriate follow-ups. Most importantly, at each session students' feelings of self worth and respect are constantly nurtured and reinforced. Students are hugged and told that they are valued, precious and loved.
In its first two years, NMVI's results were dramatic. Disciplinary referrals for participating students dropped by more than half, gang violence campus-wide dropped by 70 percent, and attendance improved by two-thirds. Nearly 100 students participating in No More Victims have graduated since it started. Many stay involved and help Gambrell with the kids that followed them into the halls of Smiley High School.
The truly inspirational story attracted a lot of attention. In 2002 the White House touted the program as a model of community intervention, and it was featured in U.S. News & World Report, on CNN Newsnight with Aaron Brown, and 60 Minutes II. The growing attention No More Victims, Inc. received caught the eye of the film's executive producer, Craig Baumgarten. A few months later, Baumgarten's co-executive producer, Stanley M. Brooks, and director Andy Wolk traveled to Houston to meet Gambrell. Within months a deal was struck to feature the program and its founders.
The producers have said that of all their hopes for the film, perhaps the greatest is that the story serves to make people aware of the plight of not just the children of Smiley High School, but of the teens who face similar circumstances, and it inspires others to give them a chance. To the folks who have personally experienced No More Victims, Inc., there is little doubt it will happen.
"Teachers and administrators have witnessed students – including gang members – searching for [Gambrell] in the hallways. Once they find [her], they have literally fallen into their arms crying and it seems like they are clinging for their lives," Assistant Principal Reginald Spivey says. "Smiley needs No More Victims, Inc. It is working. Our children are proof." Although it premiered on August 22, the Lifetime Network says that it plans a number of rebroadcasts. Check your local listings for broadcast times.