WINCHESTER — Tina and Rodney Culbreath are shining a light from the depths of despair.
The couple’s Winchester-based nonprofit organization — the I’m Just Me Movement — draws from their troubled childhoods to encourage youth to be proud and pursue their dreams.
“We find these kids who are hurting, so they lash out to cut other people down to the same emotional level,” said Tina Culbreath, 42. “They have parents who got divorced; they’re dealing with all these things. These are the same kids that we were growing up.”
Tina Culbreath said her mother was an alcoholic who didn’t know how to cope with her husband’s death from a drug overdose, so she drank every night until she passed out on a chair that, over time, became soaked with urine.
Rodney Culbreath’s mother was incarcerated for two years, starting when he was in ninth grade. Fearing a child welfare agency would split up his family, he took on the responsibility of caring for his two siblings and didn’t tell anyone other than his grandmother about his situation.
They met and became a couple when they were in their teens and living in Northern Virginia. Tina Culbreath said they shared a bond of making good choices despite their situations at home.
They eventually married and moved to the Winchester area to raise their six children, three of whom were adopted from Tina Culbreath’s sister.
Rodney Culbreath earned money as a records-management contractor with the federal government, and his wife commuted to her job with Giant Food Stores in Northern Virginia.
One of their sons, Rze, had learning disabilities and struggled in high school, which led his parents to start a fundraising campaign in 2013 to offset the costs of an $18,000 post-graduate program that would improve his skills enough to attend college.
The Culbreaths named their fundraiser the I’m Just Me Movement and raised $6,000. They financed the remaining $12,000 in order to enroll Rze in the program.
After seeing the community’s generosity toward their son, the couple decided to continue the I’m Just Me Movement to help other children facing adversities they don’t know how to overcome.
“You can kind of see what’s really going on with these kids, but they’re not going to say anything about it,” said Rodney Culbreath, 44. “They just try to do the best they can, go to school, read the best they can. They know when they go home, there’s not going to be any help there.”
The Culbreaths offer themselves as mentors, building bonds with young people by sharing stories from their own troubled childhoods.
“I tell kids, ‘You’re not your environment. You’re not where you come from,’” Rodney Culbreath said. “We’re trying to get them to a point where they can be kids and live their lives, have their dreams.” “We give them hope to be something different,” Tina Culbreath said.
The organization’s Live Life Forward program provides the information and motivation many young people need to work toward a positive future. Earlier this month, the program was approved for implementation at the Northwestern Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Frederick County.
“Eight of our mentors will go in and talk about effective communication, self-awareness, choices, conflict management, healthy relationships, job readiness,” Tina Culbreath said. “These kids have not had the best role models in their lives, and someone has to teach them these things.”
One of the program’s mentors came to the I’m Just Me Movement during her involvement with the Northwestern Regional Adult Drug Treatment Court.
“She was struggling with addiction but staying sober, and she wanted to give back,” Tina Culbreath said. “We’re hoping these kids will see that other people have made it out despite their previous choices.”
“We’re trying to give them hope, give them passion, and help them understand why they’re here [in the Juvenile Detention Center] and how they can move forward,” Rodney Culbreath said.
The I’m Just Me Movement is also active in area schools, the couple said, offering workshops that help truants and bullies address and change their behaviors, and instill a sense of worth in children who feel victimized and hopeless.
Additionally, the Culbreaths are working with the Frederick County Department of Social Services to implement a new self-sufficiency program for young parents and their children.
“Overall, the whole topic for us is inclusion,” Tina Culbreath said. “Let’s include these kids back into society so they can rekindle their commitment to themselves and the people around them.”
“We also have to bridge the gap in cases where the parents or guardians are not involved,” Rodney Culbreath said. “Let’s get that parent or guardian interested in their child’s education and life.”
When possible, the Culbreaths charge fees for their workshops, but the I’m Just Me Movement needs additional support in order to continue and expand its mission.
“These things take money, they take time, they take supplies,” Tina Culbreath said.
Last week, she met with the Community Foundation of the Northern Shenandoah Valley to discuss establishing a fund to accept donations from supporters.
“Individuals are more likely to give to a community fund because it gives validation to where their money goes,” Tina Culbreath said.
While raising the $5,000 required to establish a fund, the Culbreaths said they’ll continue to work with young people.
“It’s about building self-esteem, helping them become who they are,” Tina Culbreath said. “It’s about building hope.”
For more information about the I’m Just Me Movement, or to contribute to the establishment of its community fund, visit imjustmemovement.org, email email@example.com, call 703-344-6206, or write to P.O. Box 4283, Winchester, VA 22604.
— Contact Brian Brehm at firstname.lastname@example.org