Friends of the Children is an organization that believes that any child, in any situation, can succeed. It believes that when youth go on to become leaders in their communities and successful in their careers it has ripple effects on their siblings, peers, neighbors, and their children, breaking the cycle of generational poverty.
Sadly, not every child has an adult that is ready to step up and give them the guidance and support that is essential for them to succeed.
Friends of the Children was founded by Duncan Campbell, a philanthropist who made money in the timber industry but had a very rough childhood before he found success.
“Campbell asked researchers, ‘What can I do that would help folks not go through the same childhood that I went through,’” said Matt Springer, Executive Director of the Friends of the Children’s Lane County branch. “They came back said that a caring adult in a child’s life is really the single most impactful factor that you can provide to change the trajectory for folks.”
In 1993, Campbell founded Friends of the Children in Portland to attempt to provide caring adults to area youth. The organization has just kept growing since.
“We’ve seen rapid growth in the last five years,” said Springer. “The ninth chapter opened in San Francisco in 2017. Not there’s 26.”
Friends of the Children - Lane County (FC-LC) was founded in July 2020 and is an independent 501c3. The organization is headquartered in Eugene but serves all of Lane County.
Friends of the Children is a mentoring organization but is different than most people typically think about mentoring in a couple ways.
One is that it provides professional mentors. The other is that the mentors stay with families for twelve years.
Mentors start working with kids between the ages of four and six and stay with them all the way through high school.
Besides professional mentors, FC-LC works with many local organizations to help children and their families. These include the local school districts, Family Relief Nursery, Department of Human Services, Peggy’s Primary Care, Preschool Promise, along with any other programs that have knowledge of families of Cottage Grove and surrounding areas.
To get started, FC-LC asked those groups for referrals and then did their due diligence to make sure the families they selected to help would benefit most from this very specific type of mentoring service.
Currently, FC-LC is serving 16 families in the Cottage Grove/Dorena area and 60 over the entire county.
FC-LC not only serves children but also their caregivers, so Springer estimates that this chapter of Friends of Children serves about 144 people total.
Mentors work with children about four hours each week and typically split between school and community involvement. During this time, mentors try to have the children experience different things in the hope that they find their ‘spark’.
In the Cottage Grove area, there has been a particular interest in serving people who speak the Mam language, a dialect spoken by people from some areas of Guatemala and Mexico. Many Mam speakers have settled around Cottage Grove.
“It sounded like a challenge, in terms of language and making sure we had the right resources,” said Springer. “We had a couple groups come in to help with funding, including the Gray Family Foundation, the Tykeson Family Foundation and the Ford Foundation. They’ve provided a lot of assistance to make sure we are culturally competent and that we were also able to communicate well enough with the kids and caregivers to serve and contribute.”
The mentors, or ‘Friends’ as they are called within this organization, come from all walks of life.
“We currently have six mentors,” said FC-LC Program Director Sloan Hamilton. “Some come from an education background, some come from a social services background, some from mental health but all have the passion and experience to serve the populations were serving.”
Two areas FC-LC is focusing on are enhancing literacy and mental health supports.
“Kids that don’t gain literacy skills early in their academic careers tend to fall behind more year after year,” explained Springer. “That is a real focus for us, and we’ve partnered with a couple different entities, including University of Oregon and Marist High School, to create a literacy strategy. In terms of mental health, we’ve recognized that many kids have been particularly impacted by COVID, so we have our Friends conduct activities that can reinforce protective factors that build mental health resilience.”
Resilience is certainly one of FC-LC’s strengths as indicated by its 12-year commitment to program participants.
“When we’re meeting a new family we talk about how it’s a 12 year partnership,” said Hamilton. “I mean, that’s a pretty intensive relationship. For some of these families, it’s the longest relationship they may have ever had. Regardless of the challenges that are faced along the way we’re in this together and will be a voice for positivity for the life of the child.”
For more information about Friends of Children – Lane County go to friendslanecountyor.org/.