There are many children in the world who are born into circumstances that do not benefit them. Maybe their parents cannot support the family, so they grow up hungry, or maybe they are left mostly on their own because their parents are working all the time. Parents may be abusive or pre-occupied with their own problems.
Living in Bend, it can be easy to forget that these circumstances are real and happen here locally. There are plenty of kids who eat most of their meals at school, whose families experience homelessness or are growing up in circumstances that hinder future success in life.
This is where Friends of the Children Central Oregon comes in. Friends of the Children was started by Duncan Campbell in Portland, Ore., in 1993 and has since expanded all over the nation. The organization started in Central Oregon in 2017.
This non-profit, evidenced-based organization sets out to find those young children who need extra support due to the circumstances they were born into and then give them that support until they become adults. This long-term plan is one of the main things that separates FOCCO from other mentoring organizations.
"We have an intense selection process where we partner with the school district and do a six-week observation in kindergarten classes," says Kim Hatfield, Executive Director for FOCCO. "We look for kids who are isolated, who may have behavior issues, who are coming to school hungry—the most vulnerable children who need someone to walk alongside them and advocate for them."
From there, FOCCO gives teachers a questionnaire to get more information, and they use the combined information to score each child to narrow down the selection process. Once children are selected, they are partnered with a 'friend,' who spends four hours a week with them—two hours in the classroom and two hours outside of school. These children will have a friend for 12.5 years—until they graduate from high school.
- Kelly Klos
Each extensively trained friend has eight children they work with for a minimum of three years. To make this commitment more of a reality, the friend position is a paid, full-time position with a starting wage comparable to a starting teacher wage. This allows friends to wholly devote themselves to the position, rather than try to juggle it with another job.
When the friends are spending time with the children, they focus on doing fun things that most kids like to do — go to the park, ride bikes, go on picnics, etc. But in addition, each activity is set up to work toward a goal for the child, whether that goal is something simple like being able to go across the monkey bars, or something more complex like improving a child's socialization skills by having them spend time with another child in the program, Hatfield explains.
Two long-term plans FOCCO will be working on is teaching their kids about financial literacy and improving their attendance at school. Oftentimes getting to school can be a real challenge for families, and regularly missing school can have a huge impact on a child's education and learning.
"We want to give children the tools and skills to break the cycle of poverty, so that they know that their potential is limitless," says Hatfield.
If this sounds like a lofty goal, it is. But FOCCO is in it for the long haul, and one way to ensure the kids in their program get the support they need is to fund the operating budget for the next three years before bringing on another cohort of children. While this means the process might be a bit longer, it gives the friends and the organization financial stability, which then allows them to devote themselves to the children.
"We want all kids to have every opportunity that all children should have," Hatfield says. "Not all kids have that—some are just surviving. I want every kid to have a happy, wonderful 'chasing butterflies' childhood."
To learn more about Friends of the Children Central Oregon, visit: friendscentraloregon.org. FOCCO is always looking for volunteers to help with food deliveries to the families, or to lead special activities for the children.