Gov. Tate Reeves' wife Elee Reeves read from the children's book she wrote, called Fred the Turtle, to a class from Key Elementary School on Feb. 9, 2023. Credit: Courtesy Jackson Public Schools

Last year, Mississippi First Lady Elee Reeves announced the launch of her new initiative aimed at improving child development – an issue leaders have increasingly recognized as a critical economic driver in the most impoverished state in the nation.

Joined by the press in the Governor’s Mansion, Reeves revealed her new strategy: She wrote a children’s activity book about a turtle named Fred.

Throughout February and into March, about nine months before her husband’s reelection bid, Reeves began traveling the state, garnering media attention as she passed out copies of the book to fourth graders.

Reeves hopes that Fred, named after her childhood imaginary friend, and the story of his journey through Mississippi “will help our children to develop the lifelong skills that they need to become successful adults,” she told TV reporters at the March 2022 press conference.

Reeves’ book — 20 pages of stapled white cardstock featuring comic sans font and a green cartoon turtle on the cover — may have taken center stage at last year’s event, but side remarks signal something far more consequential is brewing.

At the announcement, Reeves was flanked by individuals representing Casey Family Programs, a national foster care foundation credited with funding production of the book, and The Hope Science Institute of Mississippi, a little-known nonprofit that quietly evolved from a child welfare initiative called Family First.

The new nonprofit oversees an initiative called Programs of Hope, which consists of an advisory council chaired by Reeves and Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam.

Financial documentation is not yet available for 2022, so it’s difficult to see where The Hope Science Institute, also known as Hope Rising Mississippi, is receiving its funding, how much it’s receiving, or where it’s going. Officials said a grant from Casey paid to print the initial copies of Reeves’ book, called Fred the Turtle. While the two organizations would not disclose the size of the grant, the governor’s office told Mississippi Today that Casey Family Programs awarded Hope Rising $28,500 to print 33,000 books.

But Mississippi Today also uncovered that Hope Rising paid to print thousands of additional copies of Fred the Turtle with $10,000 in federal Head Start funds appropriated to it by the governor’s office.

A spokesperson in the governor’s office justified the expense by describing the coloring books as “materials to promote better linkages between Head Start Agencies.” This goal is not advertised in PR and news alerts about the book. Pressed further, the spokesperson clarified the books Hope Rising paid to print last year will be distributed to Head Start classrooms starting this May.

“Almost since the beginning of our governor’s administration, we were looking for ways to build hope, and the First Lady and Justice Beam have been working together on Mississippi Programs of Hope in the effort to bring together government, the private sector and nonprofits to work together,” Cindy Cheeks, director of program operations for The Hope Science Institute, said at the 2022 book announcement.

The concept bears striking resemblance to the Family First Initiative, for which Cheeks formerly served as a strategic initiatives coordinator. But onlookers wouldn’t know from press releases or promotional materials how one initiative grew from another.

Family First was a short-lived judicial initiative launched by Beam and former Mississippi First Lady Deborah Bryant in 2018. Former Gov. Phil Bryant and others advertised Family First as the catalyst for a significant overhaul of Mississippi’s child welfare system.

The idea was to prevent child neglect by connecting needy families to resources in their community — food, clothing, beds, money for rent or power bills, transportation, job training, etc. — so that the state didn’t have to remove children from their homes.

Instead, the state sold empty promises through the initiative, Mississippi Today found in its 2022 investigation, and while the members say some meaningful work did occur on the local level, the project’s demise was one of many casualties felt by a larger welfare scandal that broke in 2020.

“They were lying,” Beam recently told Mississippi Today, referring to the Bryant administration’s promise to create a database that could connect families to resources and track needs and outcomes.

While two separate and distinct entities, there was a close association between the Family First Initiative and Families First for Mississippi, the now defunct welfare program run in part Nancy New, who pleaded guilty to fraud and bribery.

The New nonprofit program, also promoted by former Gov. Bryant, served as a vehicle for officials, including former welfare director John Davis, to misspend tens of millions of federal grant funds from the Mississippi Department of Human Services. Beyond sharing a similar name and goal, Family First and Families First were entangled with many of the same characters. They even had the same logo, the result of a bungled branding campaign carried out a PR firm called Cirlot Agency.

After agents from the auditor’s office arrested New and Davis in 2020, Families First for Mississippi immediately shuttered and the court-affiliated Family First Initiative vanished. 

“I can tell you that at some point, I was bluer than blue about all this. It broke my heart,” Beam told Mississippi Today in 2022, referring to the welfare scandal.

Beam — daughter of former Mississippi Baptist Convention president and preacher Gene Henderson and sister to Pinelake Baptist Church pastor Chip Henderson — then quoted a Bible verse: “Don’t grow weary in doing good.”

“We can’t quit trying to find resources to help our kids. If anything, we have to fight all the harder,” she said. (Beam spoke to Mississippi Today in an individual capacity, not as a representative of the court.)

Since then, architects of the judicial initiative have tried to rebrand and distance their mission from the corrupt welfare delivery system and its leaders. The new initiative no longer proclaims goals as lofty as reducing the foster care population; it’s more focused on “sharing the power of Hope.”

And while Elee Reeves promotes building resilience in children, her husband squeezes the state of the resources it could use to stabilize households and satisfy that goal.

Gov. Tate Reeves has left millions of federal welfare funds unspent. He sent $130 million in rental assistance back to the federal government. And he continues to adamantly reject billions in Medicaid funds that could provide health insurance to poor parents.

Shortly after arrests in the sprawling welfare scandal, Beam began a new court effort similar to Family First called “Programs of HOPE” under the Mississippi Supreme Court’s Commission on Children’s Justice. HOPE stands for housing and transportation; opportunities for treatment; parent and family support; and economic opportunities — though the program does not itself provide or fund these services.

Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess Dickinson — who headed the state agency that oversees foster care during the Family First era and previously had to recuse himself as the judge in Davis’ criminal case — assisted with HOPE’s creation, narrating and uploading an informational video about the program.

Beam was inspired by the book “Hope Rising” by Casey Gwinn, an attorney and founder of a violence prevention organization, and Chan Hellman, a social work professor at the University of Oklahoma. 

The book provides an alternative perspective to the heavily-cited, widely-accepted Adverse Childhood Events or ACE score. 

The ACE score is a framework developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for understanding the correlation between childhood stressors and adult health outcomes — and the corresponding resiliency test, which measures the exception to the rule. In other words, the more traumatic childhood events a person experiences, the higher risk they are for chronic health problems and other challenges in adulthood, unless they have high resiliency. 

This goes hand-in-hand with the idea of “trauma-informed care,” which promotes a holistic approach to addressing challenges, recognizing the role that trauma plays in a person’s life.

“Hope science” presents the theory that a person’s level of hope – “the belief that your future can be brighter and better than your past and that you actually have a role to play in making it better,” according to the book – is the greatest indicator of future success.

Beam was struck by the concept. 

“Many of us (judges) have been doing this for years. We just didn’t have what to call it,” Beam told Mississippi Today in 2022. “Talking to people in such a way instead of screaming and yelling at them about getting off your butt and finding a house and a job so you can get your kids back, and rather saying, ‘How can I help you? We want your children to be with you because we know that’s going to be the best thing,’” Beam said.

Beam then helped set up a private nonprofit called The Hope Science Institute of Mississippi, and moved the public court function of “Programs of Hope” under the private organization in 2021. The organization changed its operating name to Hope Rising Mississippi in 2022.

“Programs of Hope simply helps them (state and community leaders) to connect and facilitate the exchange of ideas,” Beam recently told Mississippi Today. “It’s exciting to see how light bulbs start going off, where agencies thought, ‘We could never get this done.’ And then all of a sudden, vouchers are there, or transportation is there, those types of things. Parenting – we’ve never had any standard for parenting classes and now that’s coming about. It’s just that opportunity to bring people together.”

The program has received virtually no media attention, save for a feature in Mississippi Christian Living magazine. The article described Hope Rising as a “new nonprofit that aims to create lasting, systemic change in Mississippi through the science of hope (which, yes, is a real thing).”

According to a press release, Justice Beam was supposed to represent Programs of Hope at Elee Reeves’ 2022 book announcement, but her former assistant Cheeks spoke instead. Cheeks explained that Fred the Turtle was born out of the efforts of Programs of Hope.

Cheeks, who worked as a coordinator for Family First during her employment at the Mississippi Supreme Court, is also a longtime administrator for an organization called GenerousChurch, which works to “train Biblical generosity.”

While Beam serves as an advisor to the nonprofit and chairs one of the nonprofit’s programs, the judge is quick to clarify that she is not an employee or a board member for the nonprofit.

The director of Hope Rising Mississippi is Amanda Fontaine, who also serves as director of the Mississippi Association of Broadcasters. Fontaine previously worked for New’s program Families First for Mississippi, according to past articles describing Fontaine as the program’s “director of development and sustainability.” 

A 2018-2019 ledger of Families First expenses from New’s nonprofit — which the State Auditor found contained errors — does not reflect that Fontaine was on payroll, but it did list $1,500 worth of reimbursements to Fontaine for food and travel.

“I’m in another role helping numerous people,” Fontaine told the Jackson Free Press in a 2018 feature about her work. “(Families First is) about … the family as a whole. They have so many programs that help families and children.” 

(A week before the story ran, New’s nonprofit paid Jackson Free Press $400 for a quarter-page ad with the memo “Congrats to Amanda Fontaine,” according to the ledger).

Hope Rising’s publicly listed address is Fontaine’s residence in Brandon. 

Its board president is Jeff Rimes, whose law partner Andy Taggart was on the state steering committee of the original Family First Initiative.

For Rimes, the familiar characters between the old and new welfare initiatives doesn’t come as a surprise. “I often say Mississippi is ‘one big small town.’ Some overlap is inevitable in the world of nonprofits and government,” Rimes said in an email.

Another team member and co-founder of Hope Rising is former FBI agent Christopher Freeze, who served a stint as the director of the embattled Mississippi Department of Human Services under Bryant. Bryant appointed Freeze to replace Davis in August of 2019 after Davis was ousted for fraud.

After leaving the agency as Bryant’s term was ending in early 2020, Freeze dove into the field of trauma-informed leadership and began studying for his doctorate in philosophy in organizational and community leadership. He started motivational speaking and formed an LLC for his services called Mr. Freeze Enterprises.

“I know that a lot of you have programs and services,” Freeze said to social workers and service providers in a keynote address at Hope Rising’s inaugural event, MS Hope Summit, just days after Elee Reeves’ 2022 press conference. “I know that you think that you’re involved in programs and services and that that’s the goal. Let me just tell you, that is not the goal. Your programs are pathways to those goals. Your job is to help that person understand what their goal is and how your programs can help them achieve their goal. And then help them maintain, motivate their willpower.”

Mississippi Child Protection Services Director Andrea Sanders, who oversees the state’s child welfare and foster care system, and many state employees attended last year’s summit. Tickets to the event were $25 and the organization also solicited event sponsorships from $500 to $10,000.

A couple months later, the Governor’s Office gave Hope Science Institute $10,000 in funds from Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income families. All of the money was used to print 7,500 copies of Elee Reeves’ Fred the Turtle book, according to records Mississippi Today obtained.

“It was a one-time expense of the Head Start Collaboration Office for printing services for materials to promote better linkages between Head Start Agencies, other child and family agencies, and to carry out the activities of the State Director of Head Start Collaboration,” Shelby Wilcher, spokesperson for the governor, said in an email last year when asked about the payment to Hope Rising.

Head Start does not appear as one of the agency partners listed at the end of Fred the Turtle, nor does Hope Rising appear to have done work with Head Start centers. 

Asked for more clarification, Wilcher said in a statement that after Fred the Turtle was “so well received by students,” Casey Family Programs awarded a second grant to offer books for students in all of Mississippi’s 82 counties. After the second Casey grant, “the decision was made to expand the initiative to kids in Head Start.” Though nearly a year after first ordering the books to be printed, they have not yet been delivered.

“Once the books funded through the Casey Foundation (Casey Family Programs) have been distributed, Fred the Turtle will crawl into Head Start classrooms,” Wilcher wrote.

Elee Reeves has been distributing the book to fourth graders; Head Start is for children from birth to 5-years-old.

The aim of the Hope Rising, which has already started delivering lectures to government workers about the science of hope, revolves not around providing evidence-based services to low-income families, but promoting the concept that “hope” is a tangible quality that can be taught, measured and utilized to overcome trauma and generational poverty. This year’s annual “Hope Summit” is set for April.

Hope Rising advertises a summer camp called Camp HOPE America, a national program with which the nonprofit is “working to secure its affiliation status,” and a year-long program called Pathways, which is operated by existing local community organizations, according to its website.

Hope Rising also takes some credit for the state offering five new housing vouchers to young adults aging out of foster care — a program called the Foster Youth to Independence (FYI) Voucher program that the long-standing Tennessee Valley Regional Housing Authority applied to the federal government to start receiving.

“A wide variety of organizations within the state worked for months to forge a process for leading FYI vouchers and determine the supports necessary to assist these youth in transitioning to independence,” a Hope Rising press release says.

It also promotes an initiative called “365 days of prayer.” 

Hope Rising was initially incorporated as Hope Science Institute of Mississippi by Madison pastor Dan Hall. At that time, the organization’s website described its mission as “changing the trajectory of our most at-risk youths” and outlined its four action areas: “pray, preach, practice and partner.”

“Can you imagine the impact the Body of Christ could make as we all come together to strengthen families and serve on another at one time?” the old website read. “We are looking at April being a month of hope in action across the state through the Body of Christ, organized with purposeful impact in your own community.”

Cheeks told Mississippi Today in 2022 that Hope Science Institute of Mississippi operates mainly on grants from Casey Family Programs and other private funding. She said that money goes towards administrative salaries, planning and meetings. The organization itself does not provide any direct child welfare services.

Rimes said the majority of time put in by nonprofit staff has been unpaid. “I have been deeply impressed and am extremely appreciative of the servants heart they have displayed,” he wrote.

Rimes did not answer questions from Mississippi Today about how much money Hope Rising gets from Casey Family Programs. Casey Family Programs also would not answer questions about its partnership with Hope Rising.

“Hope Rising has a diverse board of professionals from across our State who are focused on ensuring hope is brought to Mississippi in the best possible way. Financial integrity will always be a focus of our board,” Rimes said in an email.

In 2021, the nonprofit had revenue of $8,000 and spent $3,800, all on administrative expenses, according to the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office. Information for 2022 is not yet listed. Hope Rising’s IRS reports, called 990s, are not available online. Rimes provided Mississippi Today a 990 filing from the nonprofit for 2021 that did not contain any financial data. The 2022 filing is not due until May.

Mississippi Today reviewed state expenditures to The Hope Science Institute of Mississippi in the state’s public-facing accounting database. In fiscal year 2022, Hope Science Institute of Mississippi received $2,525 from the Mississippi Department of Education for employee training, $1,300 from the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, $3,000 from the Department of Mental Health and $10,000 from the governor’s office.

In publicly available dollar figures, Fred the Turtle is Hope Rising’s largest tangible offering to the state since the nonprofit’s creation. The book is promoted on Hope Rising’s website, which says 1,750 copies have been distributed in eight communities. It also asks for donations to “help Fred tour Mississippi.”

Elee Reeves’ 2022 announcement of Fred the Turtle came with a hodge podge of vaguely stated goals, such as “to build and bring resources that strengthen families and children in our state,” Cheeks said.

Russell Woods, senior director for strategic consulting at Casey Family Programs, said during the press conference that Fred the Turtle aligns with his organization’s mission to reduce the need for foster care. The organization has repeatedly declined to discuss the project with Mississippi Today.

“This project was important to invest in because it aligns with Casey’s vision to improve child wellbeing outcomes,” he said during the 2022 press conference. “And part of a healthy child development and wellbeing is literacy, education and social functioning. All of these are elements that are being effectively used in this activity book.”

The last page of the book cites several medical journals that Reeves said she used to inform her writing and the activities in the book.

It also thanks several partners, including “The Casey Foundation,” (referring to Casey Family Programs, not to be confused with the Annie E. Casey Foundation), “The Hope Institute,” (referring to the Hope Science Institute of Mississippi, not to be confused with the long-running Hope Policy Institute), Mississippi Department of Human Services, Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, Mississippi Department of Education and The Cirlot Agency, the same branding agency that received $1.7 million in welfare funds for promotional materials during the Family First era.

Cirlot CEO Liza Cirlot Looser told Mississippi Today that Cirlot designed the cover and laid out the pages in Fred the Turtle for free.

Mississippi isn’t the only place in which Casey Family Programs is partnering with the spouses of governors to build support for child welfare reform.

“The spouses of governors (first spouses) can leverage their influence to advance child and family well-being,” its website states. “Although not elected officials, first spouses are important allies to child welfare leaders as they seek to collaborate with a wide range of partners, build upstream prevention services, and transform the child welfare system.”

Meanwhile, the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, an agency under Gov. Reeves, is still failing to draw down the unlimited federal matching funds newly offered by the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 that could be used to prevent neglect and keep families intact.

In recent weeks, the First Lady’s office issued a media blast about her book tour, during which she read Fred the Turtle to students in Canton, Jackson, Hattiesburg and Meridian. WDAM reported that Elee Reeves’ goal is to distribute 30,000 copies of her book. 

Dixie Attendance Center student Brayden Cooke said this about the First Lady’s visit: “It was amazing, but I was also kind of nervous because it’s my first time seeing her and I didn’t want to act a fool.”

In the book, readers follow a character named Jimmy, a fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico. On his seafood delivery route in Hattiesburg, Fisherman Jimmy encounters a turtle he names Fred. 

Together, they travel to Meridian, Columbus and the U.S. Air Force Base, Natchez, Indianola and the B.B. King Museum, Oxford, where they learn about William Faulkner, and the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson, briefly running into Gov. Reeves. Along the journey, the book asks children to contemplate and write down their dreams, goals, fears and superpowers. Other pages ask the reader to find the turtles hiding in the Capitol building, connect the dots to finish a picture of a guitar or complete a word search. 

The State’s Education Superintendent Carey Wright, who also spoke at the 2022 press conference, said the new book “shows all Mississippians how much the First Lady values the children of our state.”

Wright then turned to Reeves. “If I might say,” Wright said, “you might have another vocation waiting for you when you finish this job.”

CLARIFICATION: $1,300 that Hope Science Institute received came from the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services, but was labeled as an expenditure of the Mississippi Department of Human Services because CPS, recently separated from MDHS, does not have its own agency code in Mississippi’s online expenditure database. The story has been updated to reflect that the purchase came from CPS.

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Anna Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.