By Tara Bannow

The Bulletin

A Portland-based nonprofit announced Tuesday it will pair 24 Central Oregon kids at risk of getting in trouble or dropping out of school with adults that will mentor them from kindergarten to high school graduation.

Friends of the Children staffs full-time, professional mentors — or friends, as it calls them — at its offices and then identifies which at-risk children in the area would benefit most from the relationships.

The launch of the group’s Central Oregon chapter coincides with new chapters in Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Los Angeles and an expanded Boston chapter. It’s happening thanks to a $2.4 million federal grant — $300,000 of which is being dedicated to establishing the Bend office — and private donations.

That’s in addition to the group’s 10 existing sites, including two in New York City, one in Cornwall, United Kingdom, and another in Klamath Falls, the smallest city served..

Duncan Campbell, founder of Friends of the Children, said while the cities his organization serves are very different, the children’s needs are consistent.

“Obviously there is a big difference between Harlem and Bend, Oregon, but the needs of these children and the family situations are very similar,” he said.

The initial focus locally will be on three Deschutes County schools: Bear Creek Elementary, Ensworth Elementary and Redmond Early Learning Center, chosen partially based on their high eligibility for free and reduced-price meals, often used as a measure of poverty. Each school will refer the eight most at-risk students to the program. Risk is based on their family situations, including income, and the child’s behaviors: whether they get into fights or curse at a teacher, for example.

“It’s a reverse process of taking the best kids on the playground,” Campbell said.

The goal is to help ensure kids are successful, including graduating from high school and avoiding the juvenile justice system and unintended pregnancies. To that end, Friends of the Children says 83 percent of its participants graduated from high school, 93 percent avoided the juvenile justice system and 98 percent avoided early parenting.

Lots of kids have stress going on at home, but are generally more resilient if they have caring adults supporting them, said Desiree Margo, principal of the Redmond Early Learning Center. The best candidates for Friends of the Children will be kids with tough family situations who also lack consistent relationships with adults, she said.

“Really we’re looking at, ‘Who are the students who have (adverse childhood experiences) and don’t have that support that can help them manage the stress?’” Margo said.

The Central Oregon chapter plans to expand into Crook and Jefferson counties within four to five years. Students in Crook and Jefferson counties have higher rates of eligibility for free and reduced-price meals than those in Deschutes County: 56 percent and 76.5 percent, respectively, versus 44 percent in Deschutes County, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

Friends of the Children will hire three new mentors for its Central Oregon chapter. Although the search will be nationwide, the group prefers someone local, said Kim Hatfield, executive director of Friends of the Children’s Central Oregon office. Mentors are typically paired with students of the same gender and ethnicity. Hatfield said at least one of the mentors her chapter hires will be male, and at least one will speak Spanish. Mentors also must have college degrees.

Unlike volunteers, though, these mentors enter the job with the expectation that they’ll stick around for at least three years, ideally more, Campbell said. The longer an individual mentor can stay with the child during their education, the better.

“We don’t want them to leave after a year or two to go back to school or become a minister or do something else, because they’ll just be another adult that comes along and breaks the child’s heart,” Campbell said.

In the group’s Portland chapter, some mentors have worked there 20 years and are working with their second group of kids, he said.

Each mentor in Central Oregon will be paired with eight kids, who they’ll spend an average of four hours per week with. That time includes tutoring and reading help in addition to recreational activities.

Ken Wilhelm, executive director of the United Way of Deschutes County, said he thinks the mentors will be able to have a greater impact on the kids’ lives because they can spend more time with them than their teachers, who might be juggling 25 kids in a classroom.

“With these mentors, they’re able to focus on these kids with laser-like focus,” he said. “Of course, it’s going to have impact when you’re able to devote that kind of attention to someone.”

The United Way of Deschutes County was among the private donors who contributed a collective $800,000 to the local Friends of the Children chapter. Other donors include the Tykeson family, the Oregon Community Foundation, The Campbell Foundation and the Central Oregon Health Council.

Mentors make anywhere between the low $30,000s and high $40,000s depending on the area they’re in, Campbell said. Friends of the Children can’t compete with the business community salary-wise, but it compensates by providing fulfilling work, he said.

Margo, of the Redmond Early Learning Center, said offering even a modest salary provides for more stability than a volunteer position.

“It doesn’t pay that much,” she said. “If someone ends up taking this job, they obviously have a heart for it.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0304,