Friends of the Children is an organization that believes every child can thrive in every situation. It believes that when youth become leaders in their communities and succeed in their careers, it impacts their siblings, peers, neighbors and children, breaking the cycle of generational poverty.
Unfortunately, not every child has an adult who is willing to step up and give them the guidance and support essential to their success.
Friends of the Children was founded by Duncan Campbell, a philanthropist who made money in the lumber industry but had a very rough childhood before finding success.
“Campbell asked the researchers, ‘What can I do to help people not go through the same childhood I did,'” said Matt Springer, executive director of the Friends of the Children’s Lane County branch. “They came back and said that having a caring adult in a child’s life is truly the most influential factor that you can provide to change the way for people.”
In 1993, Campbell founded Friends of the Children in Portland to try to provide caring adults for the youth in the area. Since then the organization has grown steadily.
“We’ve seen rapid growth over the past five years,” Springer said. “The ninth chapter opened in San Francisco in 2017. Not there are 26.”
Friends of the Children – Lane County (FC-LC) was incorporated 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 it differs in a few ways from most people who usually think about mentoring.
One of them is that it provides professional mentors. On the other hand, the mentors stay with the families for twelve years.
Mentors start working with children between the ages of four and six and accompany them through high school.
In addition to professional mentors, FC-LC works with many local organizations to help children and their families. This includes the local school districts, Family Relief Nursery, Department of Human Services, Peggy’s Primary Care, Preschool Promise and any other program that has knowledge of families in Cottage Grove and the surrounding area.
To begin with, FC-LC asked these groups for recommendations and then proceeded diligently to ensure that the families they had chosen to help would benefit the most from this very specific type of mentoring service.
FC-LC currently serves 16 families in the Cottage Grove/Dorena area and 60 across the county.
FC-LC serves not only children but also their caregivers. Springer estimates that this chapter of Friends of Children supports approximately 144 people in total.
Mentors work with the children about four hours a week and typically split school and community involvement. During this time, mentors try to let the children experience different things in the hope that they will find their “spark”.
In the Cottage Grove area, there is a particular interest in helping 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 the language and making sure we had the right resources,” Springer said. “We had a few groups that helped us with funding, including the Gray Family Foundation, the Tykeson Family Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. They provided a lot of support to ensure we were culturally competent and that we were also able to communicate well enough with the children and caregivers to serve and contribute.”
The mentors, or “friends” as they are called in this organization, come from all walks of life.
“We currently have six mentors,” said FC-LC program director Sloan Hamilton. “Some come from an educational background, some from a social services background, some from mental health, but all have the passion and experience to serve the populations they served.”
Two areas FC-LC focuses on are improving literacy and supporting mental health.
“Children who don’t acquire literacy skills early in their academic careers fall behind year after year,” Springer said. “This is a real focus for us, and we’ve partnered with a few different institutions, including the University of Oregon and Marist High School, to develop a literacy strategy. In terms of mental health, we recognize that many children are particularly affected by COVID, so we are getting our friends to do activities that can strengthen protective factors that build mental health resilience.”
Resilience is certainly one of FC-LC’s strengths, as evidenced by its 12-year commitment to program participants.
“When we meet a new family, we talk about it being a 12-year partnership,” Hamilton said. “I mean, it’s quite an intense relationship. For some of these families, it’s the longest relationship they’ve ever had. Regardless of the challenges we face along the way, we stand together and will be a voice for positivity in the life of the child.”
For more information on Friends of Children – Lane County, visit friendslanecountyor.org/.