A Professional Friend

By Christina Boxberger

Friends of Children, this year’s beneficiary for the Midwinter Madness fundraiser, is an organization that fosters and mentors vulnerable children in our community. 

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., March 31, 1968

Duncan Campbell grew up on welfare. His father was in and out of prison. Both his parents were alcoholics. According to the American business magazine Fortune, “[he] remembers lying in bed late at night as a child and hearing his parents stumble home from the bars.” While speaking to Encore, an organization of American philanthropists, Campbell recalled that “the worst was when I was eight and my dad finally showed up drunk and too late to swear me into Cub Scouts.” Through his whole childhood, Campbell found himself alone and unencouraged. “I was about nine when I made a conscious decision not to be like my parents when I grew up,” Campbell stated in an interview with Fortune, “that was the catalyst for later success.”

Campbell worked several jobs through high school and college. He had night jobs, weekend jobs, and summer jobs. In 1983 after graduating from the University of Oregon and briefly working as a CPA, Campbell started a Campbell Global, a timber investment firm. Campbell Global grew quickly, and now “is responsible for more than 3.1 million acres of land worldwide” (Fortune). After just seven years developing the investment firm, “Campbell found himself in a financial position to donate millions to a cause of his choosing” (Fortune). This was something he and his family never experienced when he was a child. So, in 1993, Campbell started a nonprofit to help children in situations similar to his childhood. “I never want anyone to have my childhood,” he stated in his interview with Encore, “but I’m so fortunate to have had that childhood because it’s been the catalyst for the creation of Friends of the Children.” He believes it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. “Before I died,” Campbell explained, “I wanted to change one child’s life in reality; not talk about it, not go to a conference, really change a child’s life” (Encore). He did that, and much more.

Two point two million children live in poverty in the United States. Children can be very vulnerable in Portland, where poverty has risen two percent since 2011 (Oregon Public Broadcasting). According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, eighteen percent of Portland’s population is living in poverty, compared to thirteen percent in 2000. Living in poverty is defined by Oregon Live as living on “just $11,880 for an individual and $24,300 for a family of four.” This definition doesn’t just pertain to Portland, “the federal poverty rate is standardized across the country, and it doesn’t account for geographical differences in cost of living” (Oregon Live). People of color are twice as likely to experience poverty than white and Asian people. As stated by Oregon Public Broadcasting in their breakdown of the 2011 U.S. Census, “black, American Indian and Pacific Islander populations all have a nearly 40 percent poverty rate, while Hispanic and Spanish-speaking populations have a 30 percent rate. White and Asian communities experience poverty at rates of 15 percent and 19 percent, respectively.” Not only does a large percent of Portland’s population live in poverty, but 17.8  percent of Portland’s children fall into that group, often those in the grasp of generational poverty (City Data).

Generational poverty is described as existing when a family’s economic level is low for two or more generations. Families often don’t have the benefit of education or well-paying jobs, are very mobile, and have high illiteracy rates (Portland State University). Children living in generational poverty are often raised believing they have no future, no potential, and no way out; the only thing to do is to simply survive abuse and neglect. With limited resources, choices, and role models, children living in poverty risk becoming teen parents, involvement in substance abuse, incarceration, and dropping out of high school, as well as entering the foster care system or experiencing domestic violence (Friends of the Children). This is where Friends of the Children intervenes, providing children with a healthy, long-term relationship and a safe space.

Friends of the Children, also known as Friends, is a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon, that is “transforming lives and breaking the cycle of poverty through the power of relationships” (Friends of the Children). The organization has fourteen locations across the United States and one in the United Kingdom, and works with thousands of children. Sixty percent of the children served by the organization have parents who did not graduate high school, 50 percent have currently or previously incarcerated parents, and 85 percent were born to a teen parent. Friends of the Children provides mentors to the youth they serve, a commitment that lasts twelve-and-a-half years, kindergarten through high school. These mentors, called Friends, are full time, paid, trained professionals. They cause major transformations through teaching life skills, providing meaningful experiences, and thoughtfully exploring the interests of the child. Friends spend time in the child’s home, school and community to understand and foster trust with the child and child’s family. According to Oregon Live, a daily Portland newspaper, this relationship is critical to forming habits and behaviors that help encourage a healthy life, and the effects of Friends of the Children show just that. Eighty-three percent of youth involved in Friends of the Children graduate high school, 93 percent avoid the juvenile justice system, and 98 percent avoid early pregnancy (Friends of the Children). This is because, maybe for the first time, these children know they are cared about.

Made of red brick and divided by large windows, 44 NE Morris street appears to be some kind of school. Above the door, a large red sign boasts the name of the non-profit. The organization’s flyers and papers dot the tall, dark green door on the main entrance of the oldest location of Friends of the Children. Paneled windows on the door illuminate a foyer in the building, which contains only a large plant resting on a table, and above, a massive printout of the organization’s logo. I knocked on the door, and it was answered almost immediately by a woman who lead me into the office on the left, the reception. Large windows let in sunlight from the brisk November day, illuminating numerous awards and plaques throughout the room. Two women worked in the office behind computer screens, their desks covered with personal photos, colorful planters, and loose papers. The two women chatted quietly as children darted around the hallway outside the office, occasionally running in for a hug or piece of candy.

Eric Gabrielson, CEO of the Campbell Foundation and Chief Expansion Officer, walked into the office, and I stood up to greet him. He was taller than I had expected and very friendly. We began a tour, and as I followed Gabrielson deeper into the building, he explained that it had actually been a school in the past. There was an old gym on the left side of the building, and lockers lined the hallways. We walked through the gym back to the connected offices, and Gabrielson led me to Duncan Campbell’s where I noticed a large picture of Jesus, a poster that many children had written notes to Campbell on, and a big orange candle. Gabrielson handed me a copy of Campbell’s book and a folder with all sorts of information on the organization.  

Gabrielson explained that he had always been drawn to mentoring, one of the main components of Friends. Gabrielson mentored all through his childhood, “I’ll remember this moment forever,” he explained, “when I first started when I was 11, I asked a 6-year-old what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he said: ‘if I grow up’, and that just stuck with me.” Gabrielson thought, “there’s no reason he shouldn’t have the same opportunities that any of us are so fortunate to have.” This mindset is not unique to the boy Gabrielson mentored in middle school. It is reflected in children living in poverty throughout the world.

So, Gabrielson continued mentoring through high school and college, seeing it as a passion. After graduating from college, Gabrielson moved to Oregon for a job with Nike and spent almost 20 years with the company and its advertising firm, Wieden and Kennedy. Perhaps Gabrielson would still be working with Nike if he hadn’t run into Campbell 20 years ago on a hike in Central Oregon. “I fell in love with his spirit, his drive,” Gabrielson told me, “his childhood was challenging and he turned it into a positive, to make sure no other child would have the childhood he had.” Gabrielson was asked to join the board a few years later, and then, less than two years ago, Campbell approached Gabrielson, asking if he would consider a career change. “I said, sure, 20 years in advertising and marketing is a long time,” Gabrielson explained. “I have grey hair, it’s time,” he laughed. Campbell asked if Gabrielson would carry on his legacy at the Campbell Foundation and additionally offered him the job of expansion officer at Friends. Gabrielson humbly accepted both positions.

There are three parts to Gabrielson’s job: running the Campbell Foundation, helping Friends of the Children open new chapters in other cities, and the third, as described by Gabrielson, “extracurricular Duncan projects. These are things he has a passion for that are… random.” Campbell is currently in the works of developing a golf course and learning center for kids, as well as an outdoor camp near Trillium Lake. “Of course, there is no normal day. I try to balance it, the three parts of my job,” explained Gabrielson of his daily work for Friends. But, there is one thing that Gabrielson does every day: speaks to Campbell. “Every morning I talk to Duncan. I start my day talking to him, and he asks me the simple question, do you have any bulletins or revelations? And he asks me that every morning.” In the beginning, Gabrielson found the question odd, but over time he began to realize that Campbell him to prioritize and understand what’s most important. “In any day, there’s not enough time to do it all,” Gabrielson elaborated, “ so how should I structure my day to make the most difference? I love that way to center my day.” Especially for those working in the nonprofit world, there are always improvements and changes that can be made. What Campbell asks Gabrielson to do is decide what is most important and what can make the most difference, so he can structure his day to work on the most important things. There’s never a typical day working for Friends, but every day for Gabrielson includes balancing the three fundamental pieces of his job and prioritizing to make the most of a difference.

Additionally, working at Friends is different as Campbell runs it with a more business-like approach. “How do I take Duncan’s entrepreneurial spirit and take that into the nonprofit world,” wondered Gabrielson, “and bring that creativity and entrepreneurial approach, into this space where we can do things differently, shake it up, take the non-traditional approach, to non-profit,” Gabrielson explained that not many organizations are as entrepreneurial and innovative as Friends, as they serve children in a way that hasn’t been done before. “That gives a balance between pushing the organization and respecting the core of why it was created,” Gabrielson explained further. By starting early, making an unconditional, twelve-and-a-half year commitment, and paying those who make the commitment, Campbell has created a novel way of approaching mentorship and a model seen nowhere else in the nonprofit world. “It might seem simple, but it’s pretty revolutionary in this space,” said Gabrielson, tapping his oxford shoes against the floor. “It’s keeping the integrity of that model, it’s elegant in its simplicity, but at the same time pushing it to keep innovating and evolving,” The way Friends operates is truly novel, as it employs many paid mentors and is still free to the families involved. Not many nonprofits are able to hire numerous employees and still offer services completely free of charge.

Another unique aspect the organization prides itself on is the people it draws in. “The people that this place attracts are really passionate, smart, and driven, so they inspire me,” Gabrielson shared, “not just Duncan, but the whole team, and specifically the mentors. What the mentors sign up for is one of the toughest jobs out there, because not only do they have to make this long-term commitment that’s unconditional, you think about a lot of other programs, trying to provide services to these kids, the minute that the kid acts out, or gets in a fight, they’re kicked out of the program,” Gabrielson said, explaining how big of a commitment Friends makes to their youth. Youth in the program can be physically and verbally aggressive, but despite any incident, Friends upholds their commitment. The people who work at Friends, especially the mentors, see it as a calling. They are there to truly change lives. The organization even currently employs a Friend who went through the program years ago. “That, to me, is the ultimate coming full circle. Inspired by her story to come back to service… it’s pretty inspiring,” stated Gabrielson. One of the most inspiring things about the mentors is the relationship they share with the youth.

During their first few years in the program, mentors spend most of their time in the classroom with youth, sitting next to them, helping them with lessons, homework, and paying attention. Upon reaching middle school, many of the activities youth and mentors do together are outside of school.“They see the community as their classroom,” Gabrielson explained. In high school, the focus seems to shift to applications and college prep. However, throughout the whole time, Gabrielson told me “they’re talking to their mentor about these core assets, developing a spark, and a growth mindset.” The organization hopes to help youth see failures and challenges as opportunities to grow instead of roadblocks. Mentors and youth do many activities to help find and strengthen the spark with youth at all ages, such as cooking, hiking, sports, or academically based activities. They also check in on their youth’s home situation twice a month. “We’re just trying to develop that relationship and maintain it for twelve-and-a-half years,” Gabrielson told me.

There are two methods Friends of the Children uses to select children for the program, the first being school selection. The organization partners with high poverty schools, such as those in tough neighborhoods with a large percentage of students on free or reduced lunch. Friends shares an agreement with the school where they observe the kindergarten class for 6 weeks. “We’re looking for risk factors,” Gabrielson explained, “who’s acting out in class, who’s getting in fights, getting suspended, I mean, these are kindergarteners. Who shows up in the same clothes, who gets picked up by different people or no one at all.” He put a finger up for each factor. At the end of the 6 week observation period, the organization does a reverse draft, ranking the students from most to least vulnerable. The other selection method Friends of the Children utilizes is only used in specific locations. This method is 2Gen, which works with the foster care system to select the most vulnerable children based on information the system already has. “We are looking for the children of emancipated youth, so youth who have come up through the foster care system, made it out, become parents themselves, it’s the children of those parents. It’s a pretty specific group, but it’s a growing group and one we can really have an impact on,” Gabrielson told me. Once the children have been selected, they are paired with their Friend. Friends of the Children does same-sex pairing as well as racial pairing. “Most of our mentors reflect the population of the youth in the program,” Gabrielson informed me. Otherwise, Friends can be paired with children on the basis of location, common interests, and age.

Friends prides itself on the fact that all of its mentors are fit to work with each and every youth. This is mostly due to the rigorous interview process with potential mentors. The organization does an individual interview, a panel interview, and an observation of the mentors working with children all prior to even a background check. “We’re looking for that special something,” Gabrielson elaborated. “They absolutely have to see this as a calling and have a spirit. If they do, we’re confident they can make a relationship with any child. That’s kind of the secret sauce we’re looking for.” He chuckled. That secret sauce, as Gabrielson would put it, must include some kind of long-term commitment, as the average mentor at Friends stays for eight years, much longer than the average stay of a social worker: 10 months. “So you think about working with this population,” Gabrielson said, “one of the biggest things they need is consistency, dependability, and knowing someone is going to be there,” Gabrielson explained that with other approaches, when someone ducks in and someone ducks out, the intentions might be right, but what the kids need most is consistency. This consistency makes Friends a prevention model. “It’s an innovative look at mentoring,” stated Gabrielson, “but you have to look at this as upstream prevention rather than dealing with the symptom of the day.” The prevention model makes economic sense; investing in Friends puts youth on a better track and allows them to succeed and be contributing members of society. If they don’t succeed, they will need services, which are often very expensive. “Not to mention, you’re not helping this person,” said Gabrielson, explaining that the benefit of investing in Friends is not just financial.  

After the twelve-and-a-half years with Friends, the goal is to get the youth into one of the three E’s: education, enlistment, or employment. There is no common graduation story within the organization, some go to trade school, some work at assisted living centers, some are still figuring it out. However, there are still challenges. “Even with all this investment and commitment, when they get out of high school their network is just tiny,” Gabrielson explained. “That’s so important in this day and age,” Gabrielson said, explaining how oftentimes graduates of Friends lack the social network to find connections and opportunities. Despite the challenges that the youth face, Friends of the Children offers three main statistics that show the effectiveness of the model: “83% of our kids graduate from high school. 93% avoid the juvenile justice system, and 98% avoid early parenting.” These three metrics alone show part of the long-term impact Friends has on a child’s life.

Not only does Friends of the Children have the Morris office in Portland, located right off of the Fremont bridge, but also a second location deeper in Northeast Portland, almost in Gresham. When Friends first moved into this space, the city of Gresham offered them a one dollar lease on the condition that they completely refurbish the building, which is exactly what they did. This location is very modern, built in a box shape with a courtyard in the middle. The courtyard is shielded by two silver metal squares with concentric circles cut out, leaving the names of donors and contributors orbiting around the organization’s logo in the center. I pressed the intercom, and the gates each slid to the side, revealing the two tetherball poles in the courtyard. I entered the building, noting the offices to my left, and ahead, a brightly lit hallway lined with art and awards that turned to the right and ran deeper into the building. In an office off of the reception, employees chatted warmly, and further down the hallway children laughed.

Brian Pham, a manager at Friends of the Children, walked out of the administrative offices to greet me. Pham offered me a tour, and immediately upon walking back into the courtyard, Pham was greeted enthusiastically by a young girl who clung to his dark sweatshirt in a tight hug. Pham laughed. After letting go and allowing Pham a deep breath, the girl approached me and asked confidently if I would like a hug. Naturally, I accepted and bent to embrace her. She grinned and ran to play a match of tetherball with a friend.  

Pham continued talking to a few of the youth as he walked to the building on the right side of the courtyard, a gym with a wood floor. The gym was lively, youth and mentors were bouncing basketballs and shouting. Several parents shot basketballs with their kids and mentors. As Pham spoke with the youth, a parent approached me. I explained to her that I would be writing a paper on Friends. “We love friends. It’s been the best thing for our family,” she praised, “my older son had a mentor and my youngest, when he was about 4, said he wanted one too.” She pointed to a small blonde boy in the back of the gym, who was playing one on one with his mentor.

Once Pham’s fans dispersed about the facility, he began to show me around the organizations newest location. We walked back into the reception area and turned down the hallway. To the left was a media room where youth can experiment with TV’s, computers, and a green screen, or have a quiet space away during busy hours. Further down the hallway was an art room that doubled as a meeting space, small desks for independent work, and a few private meeting rooms furnished with chairs and tables for youth and their mentors. To the right, stretching the length of the hallway was a modern kitchen. It was large and equipped with many utensils and gadgets, and one child sat, chatting with his mentor, on a bar stool at the island counter. As the hallway led around the back of the kitchen, both the kitchen and hall opened to a lounge area with plush couches and chairs, windows exposing the courtyard on one side, and on the other, a large, grass field.

Like many Friends of the Children employees, Pham was drawn to the organization because of the unique consistency and longevity it offers. Pham has always had an interest and passion for mentoring, however, mentoring at Friends has proven to be a very different experience than what Pham did in high school and college. “They were great experiences, but they didn’t have what this can offer you,” Pham explained, noting the differences between his mentoring experiences. “Here, there’s a lot of kids running around, having a great time, and they don’t have spaces like this even at school or home where they can be free and safe,” he elaborated. The space Friends inhabits not only offers engaging activities but is safe of judgment and harm, allowing youth to simply be unapologetically.

While Pham currently works as a manager, he spent several years as an employed mentor for the organization. Friends tend to mentor between 8-10 youth, so Pham would have to budget his time between his youth and his other duties as a mentor. For his younger mentees, Pham would do school visits. He would sit with his youth during reading and writing, or more unstructured time such as lunch and recess. “That’s when they needed me the most,” Pham explained. Bouncing from school to school can become quite the task, as Friends sticks with a child as long as they stay within a 30-mile radius of the office. Once the youth reach middle and high school, school visits become less common. Pham would do mostly outings with these kids, which could involve many different activities. “We would work on their goals, which can be reading, writing, their spark, sports, arts, crafts, building, just whatever they’re into,” Pham explained, “exploring lakes… we could take them to do things they’ve never done before. People are different, their styles are different, so how we support them varies.”

Not only does the mentor-child relationship become more deeply personal over the twelve-and-a-half years, but it also depends on the child. All children receive their mentors in different ways; some are ready, some are more resistant. “It takes time, it’s a marathon,” Pham described, “it’s not like you have to build a relationship by next week or next month, you have twelve years.” The health of the relationship depends on consistency, seeing the kids in and out of school, and showing up when they need. “When you stay consistent, it shows that there’s more than one way to communicate, to problem solve situations,” stated Pham, offering first-hand examples of how he’s taught youth by example.

One of Pham’s responsibilities as a mentor was exercising the first method of selection that Gabrielson mentioned: school selection. Pham would spend six weeks in the classroom looking for many of the risk factors Gabrielson noted, in addition to observing how the children interact and learning about their family situation. “There’s a whole list of factors, and when we put them together, it’s not like one shoe fits all,” Pham clarified. Many of the children that may benefit from Friends are interactive and bright, however, receive little support at home. Others can struggle vitally but have a strong home support system. “We always try to find the youth who needs us the most,” said Pham, explaining how Friends optimizes the effects they can potentially have. Although there are many factors the organization looks for during selection, all youth involved with Friends are selected and enrolled in kindergarten. While Pham no longer works as a mentor, his goal, to make the biggest possible impact, remains the same.

As a program manager, Pham spends his time differently than in his days as a mentor. “The way I look at it, I mentor mentors,” Pham chuckled. He checks in weekly with the mentors as a group or does individual meetings to see how they are supporting their youth and how the youth are progressing on their goals. Additionally, Pham does work to help the families involved with Friends. “Sometimes parents are going through a crisis, and the Friends need to offer support,” he explained, noting the less obvious duties of the mentors. “We work with everyone involved with the youth.” Among relatives and guardians, this group can include caseworkers and lawyers. “We’re immersed in their life,” stated Pham. Although he is no longer a mentor, Pham still tends to develop friendships with many of the youth who spend time at the office. He can be found making up special handshakes with youth or chatting with the mentors and their youth as they cook in the facilities kitchen.

While Pham’s job can be extremely taxing, he mostly finds it rewarding. “It’s so interesting and unique, the twelve-and-a-half years. It’s really cool to see these five, six-year-olds, literally grow up. From being a teeny little kid to becoming an adult,” Pham explained thoughtfully. His ten years working with the organization has allowed him to see youth graduate from the program and become who they are. “Seeing them graduate the program,” Pham stated, “is knowing that not only were we committed to them, but they were also committed to us.” The organization can only truly affect those who equally commit to it. Another facet of the organization Pham finds satisfying is providing children with new experiences, or being their “firsts.” “We’re expanding their growth mindset, their experiences, seeing the world in a different way.” He sounded energized, his passion evident. Oftentimes, high schoolers involved with Friends want to find ways to earn money. “How to make money in a positive way,” described Pham. Mentors and youth tend to spend a fair amount of their time together working on applications, either for jobs or further education. Planning for the future is an important step for youth in their final years with Friends of the Children, not only by planning next steps but by fostering hope. “We’re trying to give them hope, instill hope,” stated Pham.

Not only is Pham passionate about what the organization does, but also what it has taught him. “What I’ve learned,” he disclosed, “is do my best to not be judgemental. I think it’s so easy to judge parents, youth, people, just because of the way they do things. Everyone has a little bias, no matter whether they acknowledge it or not.” Pham tries his best to not be judgemental, to meet the parents and youth where they are. It’s the best way he knows to be supportive.

With the increasing levels of poverty in Portland as well as the United States, lifting up youth is becoming extremely important. Many organizations aim to help homeless and impoverished youth through providing food and clothing, however Friends of the Children chooses to address the issue in a more preventative, proactive way. By hiring mentors to demonstrate consistency and teach life skills to their youth, the organization allows mentors to teach and lead by example and allow children perhaps their first healthy, stable friendship. Although the effects may not be visible immediately, over twelve-and-a-half years, Friends proves that the power of a healthy relationship should never be underestimated.

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