A Local Mentorship Program Works to Save Youth from Poverty 

In 1993, a man with a childhood riddled with strife founded an organization to help other children avoid poverty and support kids that came from traumatic home lives. Originally launched in Portland, Ore., Friends of the Children has grown and now includes 22 chapters across the country, including Detroit.


Friends of the Children-Detroit is a mentorship program where children from unstable environments such as foster care, loss of a parent, abuse in the home, amongst other criteria, are paired with a mentor.  The mentorship lasts from a young age through high school. Tasked with helping children eliminate the woes of poverty, Friends of the Children works to provide at-risk children with the tools needed to navigate everyday life.


“The way I describe Friends of the Children is we are a long-term mentoring program that’s evidence-based that matches children, one-to-one, with a paid professional mentor with the goal to end generational poverty,” says Nicole McKinney, executive director of Friends of the Children-Detroit.


The program strives for three long-term goals: each child in the program graduates high school or receives their G.E.D.; prevention of entering the juvenile justice system; and prevention of teen pregnancy. The program is specially geared towards achievement and uses an individualized approach for each child based on their needs.


“We start with the age of four- to six-year-olds, so a child who might be eight or nine would not be eligible for our program because research shows the younger you start with a child and to be able to mentor them from that age until they graduate from high school, you can have more of an impact,” says McKinney.


Not just another mentorship program, Friends of the Children not only provides children with stability, but provides the necessary direction to avoid some of the same aggregating factors that lead to a traumatic childhood. While fighting generational poverty is the main goal, other factors like incarcerated parents, substance abuse and mental illness contribute to the criteria for entering the program.


“One of the things that’s unique about our program, [is] poverty alone does not necessarily make a child eligible,” says McKinney. “We serve children that have had several adverse childhood experiences, they’re called ACES.”


Mentors, referred to as “friends” are paid to provide direct one-on-one guidance to a child throughout their journey in the program. Assigned eight children, “friends” are required to spend four hours a week with each assigned child; two hours in school and two hours out of school. As a part of their role, mentors provide both educational support and life support to the children while serving as an active and consistent fixture in their lives.


“We have two requirements: they must have a college degree and they have to have experience working with youth,” says McKinney.


With over 3,000 children in Wayne county’s foster care system alone, the desire to have the Portland-based foundation expand to Detroit grew. Taking the necessary steps to welcome a chapter to the city, a board was formed, funds were raised and the program was underway.


“Some of our founding board members raised the $1.5 million that is required to bring a chapter to the city, but once it’s launched it’s up to the community to keep it going.”


Founding a Detroit chapter in January 2020, the program began with just 40 applicants for the inaugural class. Now, over 200 applications have been received for the 2021 year. With an emphasis on Wayne county, the program is targeting children specifically in Detroit amid the city’s rising poverty rate.


“There was a study that recently came out and it said for the first time in 10 years, the city of Detroit is not the first highest in poverty for big cities, but we’re number two. We have a poverty rate of 30.6 percent,” says McKinney.


Although not on the frontlines, the executive director is committed to the fight and continues to make a mark on the children’s lives. Hearing the success stories from children in the program is a key component in growing the program and assisting other children.


“In this role, I’m not always close to the children. Sometimes when you’re high up, you don’t have a chance to be in the trenches. When you hear or see the stories, you really get to see what and how it’s helping with community,” says McKinney.

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