Miss USA 2020 Asya Branch remembers having a realization as a child that her father wasn't a statistic.
"I thought, he's a Black man in America and he hasn't been incarcerated, he doesn't have a record," she recalls.
However, shortly afterwards he was arrested and sent to prison for 10 years — reportedly for helping a young man try to reverse a situation with a robbery. Branch was 10 years old.
On Wednesday, the Mississippi beauty queen stopped in at Bed-Stuy's Children of Promise organization to surprise other children with incarcerated parents and share her story.
Children of Promise is a not-for-profit that supports families of imprisoned parents. Since winning Miss USA 2020, Branch has used her platform to raise awareness about the impact mass incarceration has had on young people like herself.
In a top-floor office, a group of teens gathered to ask Branch their burning questions: How did you stay in touch with your dad? What was your biggest disappointment? Who are your role models, and how old were you when your dad went to prison?
"I remember the day like it was yesterday, it was so vivid," she told a group of Children of Promise kids. "I tried to suppress it for years, but it affected me tremendously; emotionally, mentally, physically, and I didn't know how to cope with it.
"My dad was my hero, I was always glued to his hip. Having him instantly taken from my life was really hard to cope with."
Branch said she started writing to her dad as soon as he was imprisoned, to keep him involved in the small things of her life. She'd send report cards, tell him her crushes and keep him updated on track, dance and pageants.
As Branch shared her story, the teens opened up with some of the similarities in their own lives — from missing parents, to a shared love of french fries and cookie dough ice cream ("Oh my God, that's my favorite too!").
Branch said she wished she had an organization like Children of Promise to help her at the time. Her father was behind bars for 10 years, and was only released 1.5 years ago, with Branch going to pick him up.
Afterwards, the teens each got a handwritten card from the pageant queen, selfies and hugs. Branch then went on to tour the Children of Promise Bed-Stuy campus on MacDonough Street — from group hugs with the little kids in the gym, to sharing her Miss USA sash with young women in the "Girls' Talk" session.
Founded 12 years ago by Sharon Content, Children of Promise was started to support the children and families of parents who have been imprisoned. Content founded the program in Bed-Stuy because she knew the neighborhood "had the kids." Parents of color in Bed-Stuy have been historically targeted by the so-called "war on drugs." Recently, Children of Promise expanded to South Bronx.
"I'm so happy and proud you are even giving a voice to this population, putting a face to children of incarcerated parents," Content told the beauty queen.
"It's not the face society might traditionally say, 'Oh the children of incarcerated parents' — so you are moving the needle."
While Children of Promise may look like a typical after-school or summer program, it uses an innovative trauma-informed model to help its participants.
"We have clinicians and two psychiatrists on staff, and they collaborate with the counselors, they don't exist in a special part of the building, the clinicians are downstairs playing basketball, too," Content said.
"Mental health services are not part of the healing process for Black and Brown communities, right? So now you wanna infuse mental health — but how do you do that in a culturally acceptable way? First you allow the relationships to build, that's what makes our program so innovative. "
Content, who has a background in youth development, said she started the organization after speaking with multiple parents and grandparents who would "lean in" and tell her a parent had been sent to prison. At the time, she had nowhere to refer caregivers — so she started something herself.
Content finds kids in need by going into prisons, housing projects, through partnerships with other organizations, and pamphlet drops. The Bed-Stuy branch currently has 137 children enrolled in summer camp, and 75 at the new location in the Bronx.
One of the biggest issues facing children of incarcerated parents can be the stigma and shame, Content said. She said, sometimes a program would start and two kids who were in the same class at school would realize they were both children of incarcerated parents.
"It's not just a safe space, it also brings a camaraderie," she said. As well as helping children, Content also helps parents — visiting prisons to teach them they don't have to be absent from their families just because they are behind bars.
Speaking at the organization Wednesday, Branch told the teens how her family didn't talk about her dad being in prison at home, and she definitely didn't talk about it outside the home.
"I lost a ton of friends — there were mothers who wouldn't allow the kids to spend the night anymore, when they had done it all their childhood.
"I was dealing with a lot of heartache I didn't know how to process, not until in college I got into therapy."
Branch said the experience forced her into responsibility at a young age, too. She comes from a family of eight children, and felt compelled to be a role model for her younger siblings.
Being a Black woman competing in a very white pageant world also pushed her to embrace her identity, with people commenting on whether she'd been in the sun too long, or trying to do hairstyles that couldn't be done.
"Once I got comfortable and owned who I was and was able to embrace my story of who I am, it got a bit easier: This is what I stand for and this is who I am.
"Once I embraced my life story and really coped with my father's incarceration and how it affected me, I grew in my confidence."
At the end of the conversation, Miss Universe representatives promised to do what they could to keep helping Children of Promise, whether through posting on social media to their "global community" or getting Branch to keep pushing the word out.