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

The post MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Friends of the Children offers mentor program for foster kids appeared first on Wave Newspapers.

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