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Vancouver philanthropists embrace ‘our giving passion’

Gary and Christine Rood donated $33M to Friends of the Children, including $5M for Southwest Washington clubhouse

By Nika Bartoo-Smith, Columbian staff reporter
Published: February 9, 2023, 6:00am
4 Photos
Kate Sacamano of Friends of the Children Southwest Washington, from left, looks on as philanthropists Gary and Christine Rood talk with Allison Pauletto during a tour of the clubhouse. The Roods recently donated $33 million to the national organization, $5 million of which will go toward building a new clubhouse for the Southwest Washington chapter.
Kate Sacamano of Friends of the Children Southwest Washington, from left, looks on as philanthropists Gary and Christine Rood talk with Allison Pauletto during a tour of the clubhouse. The Roods recently donated $33 million to the national organization, $5 million of which will go toward building a new clubhouse for the Southwest Washington chapter. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Gary and Christine Rood walked into the Friends of the Children Southwest Washington clubhouse Tuesday morning, where they were greeted with smiles and new nicknames: Uncle Gary and Aunt Christine.

At the beginning of January, Friends of the Children announced a three-year, $33 million philanthropic gift from the Roods, the Vancouver couple behind the firm Rood Investments. The gift comes in the form of five commercial properties that the organization will sell for cash, according to Gary Rood. Of the expected $33 million in proceeds, $5 million will go toward establishing a new clubhouse for the Southwest Washington chapter of the national organization.

The local clubhouse is currently in a rented home. The lease is up in six months.

“The gift means that we can move forward with putting some permanent roots down in this community,” said Allison Pauletto, executive director for Friends of the Children Southwest Washington. “It’s a game-changer for us.”

Friends of the Children is a national organization founded in Portland in the early 1990s. Its aim is to break the cycle of generational poverty.

The nonprofit took root in Southwest Washington in March 2020, a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down, according to Pauletto.

The Southwest Washington chapter currently is home to 10 paid professional mentors, called “friends,” who each work with eight students. By spring, that number will expand to 12 friends, increasing the number of children served to 96, according to Pauletto.

For Gary Rood, part of what makes Friends of the Children unique is that the organization does not rely on volunteers but instead has paid staff. This is also part of what makes the organization expensive to run.

“One of the biggest reasons I chose to help these people is because A) they’re really successful with young people, and B) it’s an expensive program,” Gary Rood told The Columbian. “So if we don’t support them, they’re not going to be here. That’s the bottom line.”

The Roods were introduced to Friends of the Children in late 2018, when the organization began to talk about moving into Southwest Washington. The couple donated money then to help support the establishment of a new branch and donated again in 2022 to help fund the two new friends who will begin working with children this spring, according to Pauletto.

“Kids and health care have always been our giving passion,” Christine Rood said. “This is just an extension of that.”

On Tuesday, Pauletto led the Roods on a tour of the current clubhouse, tucked away on a neighborhood street off East Mill Plain Boulevard. The front doors of the 1,700-square-foot house open into a cozy living room that leads to a kitchen where youths not only get after-school snacks, but also learn essential life skills like cooking. A sign on the cupboards highlighted the letter of the month and the corresponding healthy snack options — this month, the letter is “P,” and the healthy snack options are pistachios, peppers and pears.

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Just off the kitchen, a pantry holds a washer and dryer along with a collection of essential items, such as toiletries, to be given to families in need. Staff at Friends of the Children work to support two generations — both the youths and their families. This means supporting caregivers to prevent crises and serving as connectors to other community organizations, Pauletto said.

The dining room of the house has been converted to a play area with toys for some of the younger kids, a shelf stacked with board games, and two bookshelves filled with reading options for kids up to fifth grade. The space also has a long table where friends can help their students with schoolwork.

In the backyard, a large deck leads to a garden where youths can learn to grow their own produce.

Currently, Friends of the Children Southwest Washington serves youths from kindergarten through fifth grade. However, the organization will stick with clients all the way through their senior year in high school, so it will eventually serve students in K-12. With an expansion in the number of youths served, and their ages, the chapter needs more space.

“One of the things that we’ve talked about that’s missing is the ability to separate the littles and the adolescents,” Pauletto said. “In elementary education, it’s very different energy, and they have different needs than adolescents.”

The new facility will be around 16,000 square feet, according to Pauletto. One key feature of the new clubhouse will be an indoor gym, along with separate spaces for elementary school kids and adolescents.

Friends of the Children Southwest Washington serves students from Vancouver Public Schools and Evergreen Public Schools. Selected youths face systemic obstacles and could use extra support to succeed, according to Pauletto.

“When you look at their results, the way they are helping these young people is amazing,” Gary Rood said. “This amount ($5 million) will move the needle for them.”

For more information about Friends of the Children Southwest Washington, visit friendsswwa.org.

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Columbian staff reporter