Luis walked up to the front desk at the Cascade Park Community Library and quietly asked to borrow a chess set. It was a simple sign of personal growth for the 10-year-old.
“He used to be shy about asking for things,” said Brian Kay, 32, his mentor through Friends of the Children.
Learning to play chess was a goal Luis set two years ago. The pair have worked on lots of skills over the years — from dribbling basketballs, running faster and reading to building social skills and perseverance. It’s all part of a mentorship program run by Portland-based Friends of the Children, which is opening a Vancouver chapter.
“It’s really exciting to be growing on this side of the river and in this community,” said Allison Pauletto, the new executive director in Vancouver.
She grew up in Vancouver and previously led Friends of the Children’s fundraising team in Portland. During her 13-year tenure, the organization’s budget grew from $2 million to $6.5 million. It’s supported by private philanthropy.
Opening a Vancouver branch means the program can be tailored to the area and its needs while still using Portland’s best practices, Pauletto said.
It also means the program can reach more local kids. Currently, Friends serves nearly 60 youths in 18 schools around Clark County. This spring, another 20 kindergartners will be selected from Mill Plain and Burton elementary schools. Pauletto said she plans to hire two more mentors for the Vancouver office. Friends is renting a house in the Vancouver Heights neighborhood that will temporarily serve as its headquarters until the nonprofit finds a more permanent home.
Burton Elementary School Principal Becki Chase has long advocated for the program to expand to Southwest Washington. Chase previously worked at Lincoln Park Elementary School in Portland, which had the program.
“I got to see the power of the program throughout all the years of elementary (school),” Chase said, emphasizing the benefit to the children. “Their trajectory changes. They get to experience a whole different side of life.”
After becoming principal at Burton, she observed students with the same problems as those at Lincoln Park and wondered how she could bring the program to her school. She considers Friends of the Children “the golden ticket,” because the nonprofit provides a guide throughout childhood. Having mentors in the school also has a residual impact on other students because they see a role model in the classroom and on the playground.
Jennifer Dowell, principal at Mill Plain Elementary School, said the mentors are a consistent person in their youths’ lives, when other people might not be so consistent.
“I’m super-excited for the support for the kids,” Dowell said.
She’s watched the program grow since it began 27 years ago. Dowell never thought she’d be able to work in a school that’s part of Friends of the Children.
Friends of the Children is also expanding in Tacoma and Eugene, Ore. In total, there are 22 locations nationwide and one in Cornwall, England.
How it works
Through an eight-week process, mentors identify children in schools who exhibit the most risk factors and could benefit from having a mentor. Some of the children have experienced abuse, neglect or homelessness, or they’ve lost a family member due to deportation. Friends of the Children pairs at-risk kids with professional, salaried mentors (not volunteers) who work alongside them from kindergarten through high school graduation. The pay is similar to a starting teacher’s salary.
“It takes a unique person to navigate all of it,” Pauletto said. “There isn’t anybody who does exactly what we do.”
Mentors follow their kids even if they move within the area. With housing instability being such a big regional problem, that’s not uncommon. It’s one reason Friends of the Children already has a presence in Southwest Washington.
Luis and Kay met when Luis was 6 and living in Portland, but he’s since moved to Vancouver. On Wednesday, Kay and Luis shot hoops after school at Mill Plain Elementary before heading to the library to read and play chess. They spend four hours weekly together at school, at home and in the community. Exactly how the hours are spent depends on Luis’ goals, whether academic, social or otherwise.
“There’s no job like this job,” said Kay, a Hillsboro, Ore., resident. “It’s a privilege and honor to be a part of our youths’ lives and walk alongside them.”
He’s been a mentor with Friends of the Children for four years, having previously worked at Boys & Girls Clubs. He spends his weeks working with eight kids in Friends of the Children’s program. Being a mentor is a “pretty cool gig,” he said, and involves building a one-on-one connection with each child to strengthen their support systems and resiliency. Still, it can be difficult to watch children struggle or to know they’re dealing with hardships outside of the program.
For Luis, being in Friends of the Children is fun.
“He’s really funny,” Luis said of Kay, adding that he sometimes tells some bad jokes.
He enjoys going to the Firstenburg Community Center with Kay and playing pingpong, which they jokingly call “bingbong.”
Kay knows the fruits of his labor might not be fully realized until later in his youths’ lives. In the meantime, he gets to watch them improve socially and academically, setting a foundation for adulthood.
Friends of the Children tracks every interaction and outcome, collecting a lot of data in the process.
The Harvard Business School Association of Oregon conducted a pro bono analysis of Friends’ outcomes, finding that the return on investment is 26.8 times the cost of the program because graduates typically do not go to prison or become teen parents. They graduate from high school and college at a higher rate than their parents.
James Tyrrell described being in Friends of the Children as both life-changing and life-saving. The 30-year-old Dundee, Ore., resident said his mentor, John, was his “saving grace” growing up.
“He was the adult I needed in my life when no other adult was able to be there for me,” Tyrrell said. “Me and him are actually still in contact to this day. He’s like an uncle to me.”
As a child, Tyrrell had no parents in his life and was raised by his grandparents until they died. He eventually became a ward of the state.
“It was a tough upbringing,” he said.
His mentor showed him the brighter side of life. This included taking Tyrrell to his first Seattle Mariners baseball game — and first trip outside Oregon. When he was 9, he met Portland Trail Blazers player Scottie Pippen. John helped get him on a path to a better future.
“He was the most consistent adult in my life. He was the one who stayed true and dedicated to me,” Tyrrell said.
With an interest in becoming an attorney, Tyrrell landed an internship at a law firm in Portland that turned into a full-time job. He was the first person in his family to go to college. Tyrrell is now married with two children and works as a court clerk for a judge in Yamhill County, Ore.
Without the help of a mentor, he can only imagine where he’d be today.
“I’d probably be in prison or on drugs or homeless,” he said.