‘Smile Enforcer’

Mavis Washington starts Why Aren’t You Smiling, a support group for youth, on the Southside of Indy with inspiration from her son

Mavis Washington.

Out of the many lessons she learned through the past few years, Mavis Washington said the biggest one is simply to “have a better listening ear.”

It’s a skill she puts to use with Why Aren’t You Smiling, also known as W.A.Y.S., based out of Horizon Central on the Southside of Indianapolis. The faith-based nonprofit aims to support youth who struggle with self-esteem issues, depression or another mental illness.

“I want these kids to see that they can be productive members of society despite any type of issue they have, despite their history of mental health illness in their family,” Mavis said. “It doesn’t mean they can’t reach their goals and dreams. They just have to know what it is, how to control it and move on.”

Mavis is originally from Los Angeles, Calif., where she owned a juice bar, called The Juice Joint. Wanting to live in a place with a slower pace, she and her husband, Kenny, moved to Indiana in 2004 with the youngest of her two sons, Armand. Once here, Mavis returned to school, Martin University, and earned her degree to become a teacher. She spent three years teaching preschool, three years as an instructional assistant and another six as a music teacher.

Feb. 19, 2014 is a date Mavis and her family will never forget: the day Armand was sentenced to 25 years in prison for armed robbery.

Youth spend time at W.A.Y.S.

“It changed our lives completely,” Mavis said. “It’s something we never thought would happen in our family. Those things weren’t in our family genealogy, we thought. He worked at the YMCA, at my school that I was teaching at. He coached basketball and track with me. He volunteered at an organization, a basketball team with disabled men. He was in college at ISU. He had a beautiful, young girlfriend. He was doing all sorts of things that were positive, nothing that pointed in the direction of him going out and robbing some places with a weapon.”

Mavis said they requested to have her son evaluated, as they knew his actions didn’t fit the person they knew him to be.

“It might not change things for him, the outcome of his sentencing, but we want to know what was wrong,” she said. “We found out he was bipolar. He started sharing with us how he felt: thoughts of depression, anxiety, he was sad a lot. We had no idea.”

Once incarcerated, Armand began sharing with his mother about this idea for W.A.Y.S., a program to prevent other youth from experiencing what he went through.

This photo of Armand sits in the W.A.Y.S. classroom as a reminder of why the nonprofit was founded.

“He was sending me all kinds of information,” Mavis said. “His vision was so big. I said, ‘I can’t do this. I have a job. This is a full-time situation.’ I had those papers stuffed in a drawer for two-and-a-half years. But God was tugging at my heartstrings.”

Mavis officially started W.A.Y.S. on July 28, 2016 with 16 children. The organization now has 25 and meets twice a week. The program is based upon four components. Connect involves yoga, dance and music. In Expression, youth sit down to share their thoughts and feelings with their peers. Project Help is volunteering and community service. Harakati, Swahili for movement, is any physical exercise. Students journal and create vision boards.

“Armand did some research on different activities and how they help with the inner self,” Mavis said. “Healing takes place when you can talk about it. We have these vision boards because he says they have to have a vision. They have to see themselves somewhere else. They can’t let their situations take over. They set goals.”

She continued, “I’m just trying to get them to be honest. They can be honest in this room. They love coming here. This is a healthy outlet for them. That’s what was wrong with Armand. He had nowhere to share his feelings. They just spiraled out of control.”

Mavis said Armand, now 24, calls as often as he can, sometimes during class when the kids can speak with him.

“He is amazed,” she said. “He writes them a letter every week and I read it to them. This program has helped him. We’re carrying on his vision and doing what we can for some other parents so they don’t have to go through this.”

Through the program, Mavis said she has seen a lot of improvement as the kids grow more comfortable with her and the group.

“Some of the kids that I know barely ever smiled,” she said. “They are so much happier now. The kids come in here and talk about everything. That’s a beautiful thing… Anger is a big issue. We had anger management seminars. A lot of them are angry with their family situations. Or, I found a lot of them have secrets they feel they haven’t been able to reveal to their parents. They have these inner demons that they want to talk about but only feel comfortable talking about it in this room.”

Outside of W.A.Y.S., Mavis is a substitute teacher in Perry Township. However, W.A.Y.S. has been a full-time task, as she takes the youth to and from the meetings, fundraises, makes sure snacks and meals are available on days they meet, and organizes outings. The group is going to Atlanta, Ga., this month for a three-day trip to tour the city, including the National Center for Civil Rights Museum, World of Coca Cola Museum and other landmarks. More information can be found at wayswesmile.org.

“Next year’s goal is to become more involved with their schools, so I can make them accountable for their actions,” Mavis said. “I want people to know about this program. I want people to know mental health should not be continued to be pushed under the rug. Our prison systems are filled with people with mental health issues. They don’t really get the help they need before they become incarcerated. There’s kids acting out. They’re not just bad. There’s something going on. Mental health is big and I need people to be more aware to address that issue and support people that need help in that area.”