Friends of the Children's Kathrina Berk Talks to

Founded in Portland in 1993, Friends of the Children is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing free, long-term mentors to at-risk children. Recent reports have shown their methods to be tremendously successful. Friends officer Kathrina Berk spoke to about her program's unique methodology and future plans to help at-risk youth.

By Eric Garneau

friends of the children How does Friends of the Children (FOTC) go about choosing the students it will help?

Kathrina Berk: FOTC selects the most vulnerable kindergarten children in the lowest performing schools. Our children are not referred to us and they do not self-select into FOTC. Over the years, we have developed a screening tool that assigns a risk and protective score to each child, after observing in the classroom for up to six weeks.

Through direct observation in the classroom and in concert with school staff, we compare our scores from observation with knowledge that the school staff may have about the child. We look for children with aggressive or withdrawn behaviors, low self-esteem, poor study habits or difficulty with peer and adult relationships; youth who are exceedingly sad, depressed or easily frustrated. We are as likely to pick the class bully as the child being bullied. We seek children whose families live in poverty, struggle with mental illness or substance abuse, have been involved with child protective services, have been incarcerated, move often, place low value on educational attainment and offer minimal parental supervision. What's the philosophy behind employing mentors full-time, where most similar organizations just use part-time volunteers?

KB: Mentors are paid professionals, hired for their ability to work well with children from at-risk environments. Turnover in volunteer mentoring programs is high, especially when volunteers are being asked to work with children from high-risk families and environments. While we value the role of volunteers, the children we serve have needs that demand the skills of trained professional employees. Our mentors (we call them 'Friends') make a commitment to stay with the organization for three years, and many choose to stay longer.

Employing full time professionals also allows for the provision of intensive, ongoing and sophisticated training for mentors. FOTC has made a substantial investment in training formed on three bodies of evidence-based practice: adult learning theory, resilience theory and developmental theory. Upon hire, Friends participate in week-long training that provides the theoretical and practical base for the work they do with children. FOTC also requires its mentors to receive at least 12 additional hours of formal training annually on topics including depression, trauma, family dynamics and cultural competency, in addition to topics generated by the Friends.

Highly qualified, well-trained professional mentors are the key component to the FOTC model. Our Friends' expertise and commitment allow us to work with children who face the most risk and have the least protective factors - children who most need our help. Your methods have shown impressive results so far. What do you think it is about your tactics that breed such success?

KB: We start early. We identify children at the end of kindergarten. At this age, we can intervene early and help our children realize their considerable potential. Intervening early, before problem behavior and risks produce negative short-term outcomes and launch a child onto a negative developmental pathway, has proven both more effective and less costly than dealing with the long-term negative outcomes that may otherwise await these children.

We pair each child with a 'Friend,' a full-time salaried mentor. Friends spend at least four hours a week with each child, and help connect the child and family to resources and services that help the child succeed. Friends develop goals for each child, monitor their progress and celebrate their achievements.

We stay for the long term. Our commitment to each child is unconditional. We are with them no matter what. Research in the field of mentoring points to the importance of long-term commitments; the Friends model not only commits to children for the long term, but works to keep Friend attrition to a minimum, and carefully facilitates transitions between Friends when this does occur. Your organization began in Portland in 1993. How quickly did you expand to other cities, and how did you determine where you'd go next?

KB: Expansion began in 2000-2001, when the Seattle, Klamath Falls, Cincinnati and New York City chapters opened. In 2005, Friends Boston joined the network. Expansion sites are selected based on having anchor funding and local champions. It is essential that we have at least three years of committed funding before we start... we don't want our children to experience any more disappointments. Do you have any plans to expand beyond the six cities you now service? Are there any particular candidates in mind as the next stop?

KB: Expansion can be accomplished in two ways - programs can seek to expand through broadening their services or deepening their services. FOTC, due to the current economic climate, is focused on deepening our impact in the communities that we currently serve. We are focused on enhancing the programs and services that we currently offer to children and families, and working on initiatives that increase support and training for our staff.

In addition, we are currently exploring the possibility of a Friends chapter in Alaska. Besides expanding, does FOTC have any other major goals in mind to accomplish?

KB: FOTC is currently working on several additional goals:

In 2007, FOTC was selected by the National Institutes of Health to participate in a longitudinal research study to measure our approach - use of paid, trained mentors who remain with a child over several years - compared with a control group of low-income, high-risk children that do not receive our program. Children living in Boston, New York, Portland and Seattle were randomly assigned to participate in either the Friends program in those cities or in 'usual services' offered to children in the cities. Our preliminary data, released December 2010, found that our children who were most at risk at baseline for aggressive behavior were the most improved after one year. Similarly, the children who were the saddest and most hopeless about the future showed the largest difference from the control group after one year. We are eager to see and share additional data, which will be available by the end 2011.

We are actively looking for opportunities to tap into Federal funding for our programming.

FOTC hopes to develop additional models of service delivery that would enable us to provide quality mentoring and youth development services at a lower cost.

Our National Office is coordinating an effort to define and refine the programmatic approach to adolescents. Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know about Friends of the Children?

KB: We have an 18-year track record of success: 85% of our children graduate from high school, and 95% are not involved with the juvenile justice system. It's the best program few have ever heard of!

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