Matt Driscoll

Long-term mentors help at-risk kids succeed at life. Will Tacoma pony up for a program?

Friends of the Children, a nonprofit organization that started in Portland 25 years ago, hopes to open a Tacoma chapter in 2019.
Friends of the Children, a nonprofit organization that started in Portland 25 years ago, hopes to open a Tacoma chapter in 2019. Courtesy Friends of the Children - Boston

Twelve and a half years is a long time.

That’s precisely the point.

It’s how long the national nonprofit Friends of the Children pairs at-risk kids with paid, professional mentors.

According to advocates, the long-term program works. It’s shown an impressive ability to improve high school graduation rates, they point out, as well as reducing interactions with the criminal justice system and helping to prevent teens from becoming parents.

Now, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the local Medina Foundation, Friends of the Children — which currently has chapters in 14 locations across the country and one in the United Kingdom — has Tacoma in its sights.

By 2019, according to chief development officer Mary Rennekamp, Friends of Children wants to open up shop here to start helping South Sound kids in the same ways they’ve been helping kids in Portland since the program first began there 25 years ago.

There’s a reason Friends of the Children has identified Tacoma as a good fit for the program, and they’re the same reasons we should all hope a Tacoma expansion — which will need roughly $1 million more in funding to make happen — pans out.

The program, Rennekamp said, focuses on kids with challenging circumstances. Specifically targeting youth ages 4-6, it identifies kids from high-poverty schools and those already in the foster care system, pairing them with a professional mentor to provide stability and guidance from kindergarten through high school graduation.

According to the organization, 60 percent of the children it works with have parents who did not graduate high school, 85 percent were born to a teen parent and half have a parent who is incarcerated.

Citing statistics from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Rennekamp pointed out that there are 1,500 children in foster care in Pierce County, while 64 percent of children enrolled in Tacoma Public Schools live in poverty and nearly half receive free- or reduced-price lunch.

It’s the perfect fit, in other words.

At a young age, the program focuses on “seemingly simple” goals like “reading at grade level, passing a math class or not getting suspended or expelled,” Rennekamp said.

“As the youth get older,” she continued, “their goals become more complex or challenging, and — frankly — life-changing in a lot of ways.

“We’re working with families who are overcoming major socioeconomic and racial barriers. We really select the children facing the highest risk and the greatest obstacles. The strongest, singly most predictive factor a child can have is a close … sustained relationship with a caring adult, and especially an adult that has positive expectations for the child.”

One obvious key is the long-term commitment, which also makes the program unique. To have the success the program has demonstrated, Rennekamp said, such a commitment is necessary to overcome the challenges it’s trying to address.

On average, mentors spend 16 hours a month for more than a decade with the children they are paired with.

“The friend is often able to be the one that provides the continuity in these unstable environments,” Rennekamp explained. “No matter what, they have a person by their side, once a week, every week, advocating for them … and really just helping them grow.”

Along the way, the program works to establish a trusting relationship with families or guardians whenever that’s possible. The program also puts a major emphasis on partnering with local groups already engaged in this kind of work. Rennekamp cited Graduate Tacoma as just one of many examples of the kind of established efforts that attracted Friends of the Children to Tacoma.

Rennekamp stressed that Friends of the Children wants to work with Tacoma and has no intention of showing up and going it alone. The latter scenario is one that she acknowledged could lead to unnecessary tension or competition, which wouldn’t serve anyone well.

Now for the big question: What will it take to make it all happen?

Rennekamp says it requires roughly $1.5 million to sustainably fund a chapter of the program for three years. Making less of a commitment, she said, would risk both long-term success and possibly add uncertainty into the lives of children who desperately need stability.

She’s confident the money will come together.

“I think it’s going to be very challenging, but very likely that it’s going to happen,” Rennekamp said, noting that seven chapters have been opened across the country in the last year.

According to Medina Foundation executive director Jennifer Teunon, results are what made the philanthropic organization she leads open up its checkbook to help bring Friends of the Children to Tacoma.

Medina Foundation board chair Gail Gant agreed, noting that the organization helps fund anywhere from 150-160 nonprofit organizations a year, though the typical grant is closer to $20,000 or $25,000.

Gant called the $500,000 investment the Medina Foundation is making to Friends of the Children, a “curveball … that’s really exciting for the trustees.”

“Friends of the Children just has such incredible outcomes,” Teunon said. “The long-term impact was really appealing.”

Hopefully, by this time next year, I’ll be gearing up to write about some of those impacts here in Tacoma.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.