MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Friends of the Children offers mentor program for foster kids

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Friends of the Children offers mentor program for foster kids

Childhood and adolescence were anything but easy for Duncan Campbell.

He was neglected by his alcoholic parents from a young age, and his father spent years in and out of jail.

Knowing he couldn’t rely on them, Campbell worked several jobs to get through school. In his 20s, he worked in a juvenile court in Oregon as a child care worker, where he built strong bonds with the children in his unit.

After a stint as a successful businessman, Campbell sold his timber firm to focus on helping at-risk children break out of generational poverty. That’s when he started Friends of the Children, a nonprofit that soon grew nationally.

But the nonprofit’s recent presence in Los Angeles is particularly apt, said Thomas G. Lee, executive director of the organization’s local branch. And that’s because Los Angeles has the largest child welfare system in the country.

“[Friends of the Children L.A.] is about building strong networks with children,” Lee said. “Networks matter. As children form networks with families, it’s important if we’re going to break cycles of poverty and get them out of the welfare system. We have to connect children with families and individuals in a meaningful way and with depth.”

And that’s what the organization does: connect at-risk children with caring adult mentors.

The nonprofit identifies kindergarten children living in poverty and matches them with an adult mentor –– or friend –– until the child graduates from high school.

Mentors spend two hours a week in the children’s classroom and two hours one-on-one, totaling 16 hours a month together.

“Our focus is making sure the child is meeting educational outcomes, social and emotional outcomes, and to expose and get them connected to the array of sources [available to them] in L.A. County,” Lee said.

Thomas Lee

Although L.A. has countless resources for foster children, they are often underused because individuals don’t know about them, Lee said.

“Our mentors become a bridge to those resources,” getting families and children connected to a larger network of support.

But it’s not just foster youth that Friends L.A. advocates for. It’s also youth exiting the foster care system that are parenting.

Lee said the local organization wants to focus on enrolling the 128 children of foster youth into their program. By doing so, it hopes to serve “that population in a real and intentionally meaningful way.”

And their program seems to be working. The organization’s website reports that 83 percent of its children graduate from high school; 93 percent stay out of the the juvenile justice system; and 98 percent avoid parenting, even though 85 percent were born to a teenage parent.

While Friends L.A. is just planting its feet in the county –– particularly in East and South L.A. –– communities and organizations have warmly received it, Lee said, and already it is looking to extend a broader hand to more children in need.

“Foster youth have much skepticism about adults in their life, and for good reason,” Lee said. “But developing a deep level of trust between us and them was really important. … It requires a level of humility, thoughtfulness and care, especially for kids who have been failed by a lot of people.”

But Friends of the Children L.A. is changing that, one friend and one child at a time.


L.A. Executive Director: Thomas G. Lee

Years in operation: national: 25; L.A.: 7 months

Annual budget: $3 million

Number of employees: 7

Location: 672 S. Lafayette Park Place, Suite 33, L.A. 90057

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MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Create Now provides eight programs for at-risk youth

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Create Now provides eight programs for at-risk youth


By the time Tasha was 14, she had been in and out of nine detention centers. She started running away from her abusive home in South Los Angeles two years before and it was clear she didn’t want to go back.

Inside a detention center one day, Tasha was matched with a writer who bonded with her and taught her how to write a “Moesha” television script. Tasha loved it so much that she decided she wanted to pursue a career in the film and television industry.

With the help of mentors years later, including the writer who first taught her how to write a script, Tasha received a scholarship from Warner Brothers. With that money, she went on to attend the University of Southern California’s Film School Program and later completed a year of law school in Chicago .

From her early years as a troubled kid, Tasha has gone from being a runaway teenager to a college graduate, an author of three books, a licensed real-estate agent, a paid script writer, a traveling standup comedian and a documentary filmmaker.

Create Now CEO, Jill Gurr

Create Now CEO, Jill Gurr

And it’s all thanks to Create Now, the nonprofit that helped Tasha find positive outlets through writing and the arts during a dark time in her life.

And since 1994, Create Now has transformed the lives of other at-risk youth like Tasha through arts education.

“We offer eight programs to at-risk youth throughout Los Angeles and Orange County,” said Jill Gurr, the nonprofit’s founder and chief executive director.

The organization offers programs in music, fashion design and digital media, and the visual, performing, culinary and literary arts.

Its most unique program, called Cultural Journeys, organizes outings for youth to concerts, plays, museums, sporting events and much more. Often, those cultural expeditions are the first time a child has attended a live performance or event, Gurr said, which is really exciting for them.

The art programs are offered to thousands of children all over the city who face life challenges, be it poverty, abuse or homelessness. And Create Now reaches children in need in several ways.

The first matches one of its 110 volunteers to a child in need.

“We have networks with 165 youth agencies like shelters, schools, rehab and detention centers, where we set up different types of arts programs and life skills programs,” Gurr said.

The second is inside the classroom. Nonprofit volunteers go into schools with a high percentage of low-income families, where they offer anything from one-hour workshops to more long-term ones that last from 12 to 16 weeks. These Title 1 schools, as they are called, often don’t have the financial resources to offer students arts education, Gurr said.

The third is inside communities. “We organize arts festivals and community events in disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Gurr said.

In August, the organization will host an arts festival at Venice Hope Park in downtown L.A. that will feature “an open mic and prizes, arts and crafts and face painting.”

And in the historically underserved South L.A., Create Now is working on instituting a writing program in the fall at John Muir Middle School.

It is also in that neighborhood where Gurr envisions the future of the organization. She said that she and everyone at Create Now dreams of opening an art center in South L.A., where they hope to continue transforming the lives of more at-risk children like Tasha once was.


CEO: Jill Gurr

Years in operation: 22

Number of employees: 4 full-time, 1 part-time

Annual budget: about $400,000

Location: 1611 S. Hope St., Los Angeles, 90015

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MAKING A DIFFERENCE: City Year L.A. helps students realize their potential

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: City Year L.A. helps students realize their potential

City Year believes in the potential of all students, especially those from low-income communities that attend under-resourced schools.

In an effort to bring out the best in those students, City Year Los Angeles was founded in 2007 as part of an education-focused national organization whose roots date back to 1988 in Boston.

“For the last 11 years in L.A., we have been partnering with local schools to keep kids on track to graduate from high school,” said Jonathan Lopez, the nonprofit’s managing director of impact.

Specifically, City Year L.A. partners with elementary, middle and high schools that serve children from impoverished neighborhoods who are more likely to experience trauma and are less likely to finish high school.

“In our program, we leverage AmeriCorps members to work in schools with students to help with their academic, social and emotional character strength, and we provide mentorship,” Lopez said.

The AmeriCorps is a federal civil society program that engages adult volunteers in public service work all over the United States.

With more than 250 AmeriCorps volunteers in classrooms in 31 schools across the Los Angeles Unified School District, the organization is making efforts to close the education gap with its Whole School Whole Child service model.

Through this model, AmeriCorps members between 17 and 25 years of age are placed in schools where they serve as additional resources for teachers and principals to improve all-around outcomes on campus.

“By deploying young people who are idealistic, who want do service for communities and are close in age to students, they can really help leverage positive growth,” Lopez said.

Many of the volunteers are at their assigned school sites all day, greeting students as they walk through the gates every morning, running after-school programs, helping them with their homework and providing free tutoring.

That added instructional time at the end of school is one of numerous ways the nonprofit seeks to address the needs on campus, Lopez said, which many schools can’t meet because of under resourcing.

And during school hours, these young volunteers run activities during lunch and recess “to encourage team building.”

But while the academic successes of City Year L.A. are apparent in its results, including a 2015 finding that showed an improvement in math and English assessment scores from schools partnering with the nonprofit, it recognizes that it is more than just about better test scores.

“It’s about social and emotional strength as well,” Lopez said. “[City Year L.A.] does work with students who struggle with attendance. When necessary, we refer students to school administrators to help students with those challenges.”

Besides providing behavior coaching, the organization also “runs a curriculum that helps with character strength like perseverance and optimism,” which supports students’ academic careers.

Though City Year’s influence is vast, reaching more than 320 schools across the country and serving close to a quarter of a million students, there is still a local need for more support in under resourced and underserved schools.

While the nonprofit hopes to expand its programs with more funding, it is also seeking to increase the diversity of its AmeriCorps volunteers. Because boys of color experience unique challenges in school and often live in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, the organization is actively recruiting more men of color to serve as role models to them.

In this way, Lopez said, City Year L.A. hopes to serve “the communities we’re in more deeply around L.A.”


Local Executive Director: Mary Jane Stevenson

Years in operation: 11

Annual budget: $13.5 million

Number of employees: 63 full-time, 270 AmeriCorps members

Location: 606 S. Olive St., 2nd Floor, Los Angeles, 90014

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MAKING A DIFFERENCE: 826LA helps local student writers become published

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: 826LA helps local student writers become published

LOS ANGELES — Not many 6 to 18 year olds can can say they’ve been published.

But there are more than 300 in Los Angeles that can can claim the title of published writer thanks to 826LA.

Since 2005, the nonprofit has supported students throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District and around the country, helping them build confidence as creative and expository writers.

“At the heart of what we do is bring volunteers to work with students one-on-one,” said Marisa Urrutia Gedney, director of in-schools programs and college access. In many under-resourced and overpopulated classrooms, she said, it’s difficult for teachers to give their students personal attention, especially when it comes to their writing.

“Writing is difficult for anyone of any age, and we tell the students that. It takes a certain level of confidence to take what’s in your heart and in your head and write it down,” she said.

Executive Director
Joel Arquillos

The intimate support “really helps students share their ideas so they have more confidence after they finish a writing assignment.”

Through its numerous free programs, more than 9,000 economically disadvantaged students in L.A. are taught how to write everything from poems, chapbooks and short films to stories, magazines and comic books during its weekend workshops.

During the week, students can take advantage of after-school and evening tutoring at two of 826LA’s writing locations in Echo Park and Mar Vista. There, volunteers help students with writing, reading and homework in all subjects.

“Our volunteers also go to schools where they work with teachers directly in the classrooms,” Gedney said. Because it’s not always possible for students to take a field trip to one of 826LA’s sites, volunteers drop into classrooms to support teachers with projects and provide students more one-on-one attention for writing assignments.

As for the many high school students working on their college applications, volunteers offer them help with their personal statements. This college-readiness work, Gedney said, is critical to what the nonprofit does.

“Personal statements help students write about their triumphs and trials,” she said. While students’ college applications show their academic successes, they don’t offer a glimpse into the realities of their lives.

By guiding them through their essays, they’re making “college writing more equitable.”

In 2013, the organization decided to extend this idea of equitability to South L.A., where they opened the Writers Room at Manual Arts High School.

There, students have a creative space where they can explore their writing voices and get college access support. It now serves more than 700 students every year and, as a result of this added support, more seniors are getting accepted into four-year schools.

As the nonprofit steadily grows, so has students’ enthusiasm for writing.

“So many times, once we publish a book of student writing, kids often say they want to be a writer. They say they want to be keep writing and get published,” Gedney said.

Kids frequently carry their published writing in their backpacks all year and show their teachers and classmates the work they’re so proud of, she added.

And this zest for writing that 826LA sees in its students is an energy it hopes to expand to more kids.

“Our hope is to increase capacity and bring in more volunteers into all our programs and centers to support more than 9,000 students a year,” Gedney said.

“We are always excited when people take interest in the work we do because it’s rewarding, exciting and fun.”


Executive Director: Joel Arquillos

Years in operation: 13

Number of employees: about 24

Annual budget: $1,744,809

Location: 1714 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 90026

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: STEAM:Coders provides opportunities for at-risk students

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: STEAM:Coders provides opportunities for at-risk students

LOS ANGELES — Not all schools in Los Angeles are created equal.

Raymond Ealy noticed that was true when it came to low-income, underrepresented students learning about science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM). So he decided to change that.

In July 2014, Ealy launched STEAM:Coders in Pasadena to provide STEAM learning opportunities for kindergarten to 12th-grade students with limited access to technology.

“We work with students in Inglewood, South L.A., Long Beach, Pasadena and others … and we collaborate with colleges and school districts … with a focus on Title 1 schools,” said Ealy, founder and executive director of the nonprofit.

Since its inception, the organization has served more than 3,000 students in its after-school, weekend and weekly summer-camp classes teaching them skills they can apply to any field they choose to go into.

“We teach students logic, critical thinking and problem solving,” Ealy said. “We have to build a pipeline for students to not only get them ready for [STEAM] fields, but to give them the opportunity to see those areas.”

Its numerous partnerships with corporate, academic and nonprofit entities has allowed STEAM:Coders’ students to visit places where they can see technology in action and get involved. Field trips include locations like Google L.A., the California Science Center, Art Center College of Design, Apple, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology.

These field trips are a way for underserved students to see that with the right skills, they can find a place for themselves in those places, Ealy said.

“When we take kids to Caltech, many of them have never been to a college campus before,” he said. “And many of their parents have never been to a college campus, either. So when we take them to a university, it plants a seed that they can go to college too, and hopefully inspires them to attend.”

Raymond Ealy

But before students get to college, the nonprofit tries to implant a different seed in them: the seed of imagination.

Many Title 1 schools don’t have a computer science curriculum, let alone a computer lab, Ealy said. Many of the same schools, he continued, no longer offer students art or music classes, which restricts their imaginations.

So STEAM:Coders tries to remedy that disadvantage by equipping them with “tools, training, teaching and coaching to get them exposed” to both the arts and classes that teach them subjects like computer science.

Offering introductory, intermediate and advanced STEAM courses, students are taught hands-on by staff and volunteers, many who are college students or professionals who teach the weekend classes.

Among the classes being taught this year are “Building Apps and Games using JavaScript” for fourth to eighth-grade students and an “Introduction to Coding” for students from second to fifth grade.

With these opportunities, Ealy believes that kids are learning invaluable skills and getting the hard-core support they need to rise above their circumstances.

And sometimes that support manifests itself into the form of a laptop. Made possible by its partnership with Warner Brothers, the nonprofit recently gave away more than 40 laptops to students. Getting equipment like that into the hands of kids who need it most was a very proud moment for the organization.

As for the next several years, Ealy hopes to support more students in places outside of California.

“We know there’s lots of talent out there, students just need the opportunity to show it,” he said.


Executive Director/Founder: Raymond Ealy

Years in operation: 4

Annual budget: $290,000

Number of employees: about 20

Location: PO Box 90213, Pasadena, 91109

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MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Iridescent seeks to interest young girls in technology

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Iridescent seeks to interest young girls in technology

When Tara Chklovski, an aerospace engineer from India, came to the United States to pursue her Ph.D, she noticed a lack of interest in technology.

“It was interesting to see that the same drive in technology [in India] wasn’t here,” Chklovski said. “Girls are not encouraged to go into engineering and tech.”

It soon became apparent to her that something needed to be done about that. So she decided to give young people from underserved communities, particularly girls, the opportunity to become innovative leaders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

And in 2006 in Los Angeles, she founded Iridescent to do just that.

Since then, about 100,000 children, parents, mentors and educators have participated in the organization’s two international programs: Technovation and Curiosity Machine.

Technovation, which is for middle and high school students, gives girls the chance to learn necessary skills to become leaders and entrepreneurs in the tech world.

Girls in the program are encouraged to find a problem in their communities and are challenged to solve them by creating a mobile application, Chklovski said. In teams and with the support of mentors and a curriculum, the girls go through several stages of introducing their own mobile app startup.

Then there is Curiosity Machine, a family science program where children and their parents participate in a weekly design challenge. In it, they explore everything from computer science to biomechanics using simple household items like popsicle sticks or cardboard.

A few weeks ago, the nonprofit launched its Artificial Intelligence Family Challenge, in which students ages 8 to 15 and their families learn the basics of artificial intelligence technology by building projects together.

Tara Chklovski

“The big challenge is that AI is changing the world in big ways,” Chklovski said, and “the education system is going to take many years to react and respond.” This challenge intends to prepare young girls for it.

Although the AI challenge is still in the developing stages at some schools, STEAM coordinator for local district east of the Los Angeles Unified School District Craig Sipes said he is seeing a lot of excitement from teachers, principals and parents.

“[The project] is really fun and engaging and thought provoking for kids,” Sipes said. “Kids love to do hands-on projects, and by introducing the engineering design process, we help students structure how to solve problems.”

The program is teaching kids that when things don’t work out, it doesn’t mean they failed; instead, it’s showing them that failure is an opportunity to grow, Sipes said.

But what makes these programs unique, Chklovski said, is their family design.

“A key part [of the success of these programs] is engaging parents; it’s a two-generational approach. It’s really important for the child and parent to learn [about STEAM],” Chklovski said.

But these programs, Chklovski has found, do more than provide children an opportunity to bond with their families and be mentored by STEM professionals; they’ve also bettered the individuals who participate in them.

“Often, kids who do well in the family challenge struggle academically. Once they find a creative and imaginative environment, they really try,” she said.

For many students, creating designs is the first time the child feels like he or she could be successful in something, Chklovski said.

But Iridescent hopes to reach beyond helping young children blossom; it hopes to help their parents and guardians, too.

“If some of these stay-at-home moms are not working because they are taking care of children, it’s a big loss of potential,” Chklovski said. But if the millions of stay-at-home mothers in the U.S., many who don’t take the academic path, take on an entrepreneurial route after the program, big things can happen.

“If you can open new horizons for 60 million [stay-at-home mothers], we can change the world.”


CEO: Tara Chklovski

Years in operation: 12

Annual budget: $2.5 million

Number of employees: 27

Location: 532 W. 22nd St., Los Angeles, 90007

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MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Step Up helps teen girls make their way to college

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Step Up helps teen girls make their way to college

WAVE NEWSPAPERS — It was several years ago that Lubna Hindi realized the impact she and Step Up — a nonprofit that empowers young girls in under-resourced communities –– were having on the kids they served.

Hindi was a ninth grade instructor for the organization at the time, and the first class she ever taught was now wearing their caps and gowns, excitedly awaiting to discover what the future might hold for them.

The salutatorian got up, walked to the stage and in his speech to family, friends, peers and instructors, he talked about the memories he created at his school, and he talked about Step Up. He said that his female peers in the program taught him about feminism and what it means to be a man. When he was done and the valedictorian, who was going to Columbia University, stepped up to the stage, she opened up about what Step Up meant to her.

“It was one of those moments that made me realize that Step Up actually works and that the curriculum is making an impact,” said Hindi, the nonprofit’s manager of external relations and individual giving.

Founded in 1998, Step Up came into fruition after Kaye Kramer found out her mother was suffering from breast cancer. Kramer started looking for a support system and in that search, she invited 30 of her female friends and colleagues to her home. And it was there, in her living room, that Kramer found the sense of community she was seeking that would come to be known as Step Up.

“We create brave and safe spaces for girls to thrive in,” Hindi said of the after-school programs in the nonprofit’s partnering high schools. The curriculum, she said, focuses on not only the social and emotional growth of girls from ninth to 12th grade in underrepresented communities, but also on empowering them to be confident and college-bound.

Since its first office opened in Los Angeles, Step Up has become a nationally recognized organization with offices in New York, Chicago, Dallas and more, and its programs are found in dozens of high schools throughout the country.

Once or twice a week, trained Step Up instructors provide two-hour after-school sessions to high school girls in dozens of schools all over the country.

The sessions follow the organization’s youth development and grade-specific curriculums. The ninth and 10th grade confidence curriculums, for example, focus on identity, relationships, voice, visions, action and expression. 

The 11th graders center more on college readiness and career exploration with the Pathways to Professions program. Those in it get the chance to participate in the Bay Area College Tour, which, as Hindi said, is about giving college-bound girls the opportunity to see themselves in university spaces so they understand that they deserve to be there.

As for high school seniors, also known as the Young Luminaries, their curriculum includes monthly Saturday group mentoring where they get help with college applications, career preparation and are set up with summer internships.

Step Up currently has about 700 girls enrolled in its L.A. chapter in schools from Huntington Park to South L.A., and Hindi hopes to see the numbers grow locally and nationally.

“In five years, we hope to see [Step Up] in more cities and in every major market,” she said. “In 10 years, we want to be a nationally recognized organization … where people see Step Up’s value and understand the work we do.”


CEO/president: Jenni Luke

Years in operation: 20

Number of employees: 14 in L.A.; 50 nationally

Annual budget: $1 million in L.A.; $4 million nationally

L.A. Location: 510 S. Hewitt St., No. 111

Los Angeles, 90013

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