FRAYSER, Tenn. (WREG) — The city of Memphis reports a record year for homicides, and police say at least 28 of those victims were children. This comes as advocates normally available to help are struggling to reach children during COVID-19 and virtual learning. 

But, one Frayser organization is working to overcome those challenges, providing a glimpse of normalcy in a year that’s been everything but.

“To see the smiles, and knowing what a lot of them have been going through and see daily, I think for them to be able to interact with other kids has been powerful for us,” said Charlie Caswell, the founder and executive director of The Legacy of Legends program.

It uses a trauma-informed approach to help children and families cope with adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACES, but this year’s pandemic presented unexpected obstacles.

Making changes, serving whole families

During a normal school year, staff members would go and work with children experiencing difficulties in person. But, since Shelby County students are currently enrolled in virtual learning, that’s not an option.

An in-person but socially-distanced space for children to learn virtually in Memphis (WREG Photo)
An in-person but socially-distanced space for children to learn virtually in Memphis (WREG Photo)

Like most places, it started to rely on telehealth for assessments but found children weren’t opening up on screen.

So the staff teamed up with community partners to offer a safe and socially-distanced option at Impact Church where students can attend their virtual classes.

That is significant in helping them deal with the experiences of this year.

“They have to go to sleep with that trauma, wake back up and then be expected to perform on a computer in that dysfunctional community and sometimes that dysfunctional home,” Caswell said.

It’s an environment Caswell knows personally. He was just 14 when he witnessed a friend being shot and killed.

Charlie Caswell, the founder and executive director of the Legacy of Legends program in Memphis (WREG Photo)

“Those things had a long-lasting impact on my life,” he said. “I can say I forgot many of my years because I was frozen in that trauma from when that happened.”

It’s also why Legacy of Legends uses a two-generational approach to help children and their parents understand and overcome those experiences. They believe targeting the entire family increases productivity after the program.

“If a child is missing 10 or more days, and is now on track, we’re seeing that the family structure is getting better,” Caswell said, saying it’s “training parents to help other parents in their community.”

Fallon Gray, who is now a trained family support specialist, is one of the success stories.

In April, she was living in a hotel facing a serious illness with a son deemed truant, when someone intervened.

After getting help from Legacy of Legends, Fallon Gray now helps other families in need (WREG Photo)
After getting help from Legacy of Legends, Fallon Gray now helps other families in need (WREG Photo)

“They did get me in touch with Legacy of Legends, but I came this close to losing my kids because I didn’t have suitable housing for them,” Gray said. “I just needed someone to be a voice for me.”

Now on the other side, with more stability, she’s working to be that voice for others.

“It’s very important because it lets them know there are some people out there that are still doing positive things in the midst of all this negativity they’re seeing,” she said.

Gray is one of 1,500 people trauma trained through Legacy of Legends in Shelby County.

Caswell believes that’s their best path to change.

“The success is, we know we cannot reach all one million in Shelby County, but being able to help other families that help other families, we know we’re making a success,” he said.

Legacy of Legends recently received a grant through the University of Tennessee to expand programs to 400 kids across Shelby County over the next four years.

If those in the area want to learn more about the programs, they can call 901-236-4604.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

KXAN’s Josh Hinkle and WREG’s Jonee’ Lewis speak with Charlie Caswell, executive director of Legacy of Legends – a Memphis-area non-profit focused on children and trauma.