A Family Extender
By Kathleen Poe Ross | Photo by Steve Thackston
Once a week, Sandra Barnhill (B.S. '81), founder and national president of Foreverfamily Inc., joins three dozen children and volunteers for a home-cooked, family-style dinner. They congre-gregate in Foreverfamily Atlanta's multipurpose community room, which bears the name of the late Asa Hilliard, one of Barnhill's mentors from her undergraduate political science studies at GSU.
Foreverfamily is a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving children of incarcerated parents by providing counseling, tutoring, transportation and a network of support, reinforced by family meals like these.
Barnhill discovered her calling as a young attorney in Atlanta working on class-action lawsuits against prisons to improve conditions. The female prisoners she met told her that, more than anything else, they were worried about their kids on the outside. Barnhill left the legal profession in 1987 to carve out her new career.
"I decided, 'OK, who I want to be in the world is a woman who takes seriously the issues of justice and fairness,'" Barnhill says. "[Foreverfamily] got birthed because I was interested in women's empowerment and children's well-being."
In 2007, the organization expanded its mission of support to include incarcerated fathers and their kids. Now in its 25th year, Foreverfamily is in Atlanta, Louisville, Ky., and Austin, Texas.
"As an agency we have an important role in helping to shape society, policy and also to influence people," Barnhill says. "When I talk about who we are, we're not an agency that just helps children with parents in prison. We're a youth development organization."
When she isn't raising money or awareness for Foreverfamily, Barnhill is working on a book on for young leaders, to be released later this year. She's also planning the Foreverfamily Homecoming for this fall to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Georgia State has been important to Foreverfamily since its inception. Professors from Barnhill's undergraduate years, like Hilliard, have served not only as inspirations, but as board members and advisors. Current women's studies professor Layli Phillips Maparyan chairs Foreverfamily's research committee, and the board chair and half of the Foreverfamily staff are students or alumni of GSU.
Barnhill hopes that as children in Foreverfamily Atlanta interact with volunteers from GSU's School of Social Work, College of Education or Department of African-American Studies, where Barnhill will establish a research fellowship, they will see both college and GSU as a natural home. "I'm hoping I'm going to be part of a pipeline to Georgia State for our students," she says.
As Barnhill joins the board of visitors for the College of Arts & Sciences this year, she wants to be a resource for emerging leaders on campus. "I'm impressed with the strategic plan and very much see myself and my organization as a part of carrying that out," Barnhill says. "I'm very excited to be a part of helping Georgia State move into the future."