Area residents launch 'deep' mentoring in Austin

Friends of the Children focuses on West Side with help from Oak Park, River Forest leaders

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By Michael Romain

Editor

Patrick Kindred met Carlos Baca in 1998 — when Kindred was entering first grade. They've had a bond ever since. 

The pair's 20-year relationship was forged through an organization called Friends of the Children, which pairs some of the country's most at-risk young people with salaried mentors, from the time those young people first enter the classroom until they graduate from high school. 

According to the organization's data, 83 percent of young people who participate in Friends graduate with at least a high school diploma or GED, 93 percent avoid entering the juvenile justice system, and 98 percent avoid becoming parents in their teens — the three biggest risk factors for determining if an individual will live in poverty, according to the organization's research. 

Now a group of people, most of them from Oak Park, River Forest and Austin, are planting a branch of Friends of the Children in the Chicago area. They'll select 24 at-risk kids from schools on the West Side, including one elementary school in Austin, and pair them with three mentors, paid $40,000 each. Each mentor will be assigned to eight children. 

The mentors are responsible for sticking with the children for the next 12 years, dedicating at least four hours a week to each child. 

On average, mentors (who are usually of the same gender) stay with their mentees for roughly seven years — five years longer than an average social worker stays with a client, the organization's founder, Duncan Campbell, has said in interviews. 

Taal Hasak-Lowy, the Chicago chapter's inaugural executive director, said the new branch was able to launch after raising $1.5 million, mostly from private donors.

Along with financial capital, Hasak-Lowy also collected human capital, having built a seven-member board of directors that includes Oak Park Village Manager Cara Pavlicek, District 91 school board member Stacey Williams, and Community Bank Senior Vice President Ruth McLaren.

During an interview last month, many of the board members said they were impressed with the Friends' empirical approach, particularly its focus on conducting regular research into its performance.

Williams said she was "sucked into the story" of the organization and impressed by "the attention to data." 

The organization's approach is an extension of Campbell, a successful entrepreneur who started Friends in Portland in 1993. Campbell's parents were alcoholics and as a child, he was literally raised in the homes of friends, he recalled in interviews. A friend's father, for instance, taught him how to fish. 

The organization has since expanded to 15 locations in the U.S. and U.K., including Los Angeles, Harlem and Boston. 

Pavlicek and Hasak-Lowy said that, in addition to the "deep" mentoring, the Friends concept is also based on communities offering positive reinforcement — both from mentor to mentee and between mentees themselves. 

"The outcomes are just tremendous," Hasak-Lowy said, adding that Friends, unlike many conventional mentoring organizations, targets children who need the most help. 

The relationship between Kindred and Baca is a testament to the organization's mission, supporters of Friends say. 

By his own admission, Kindred was headed into the snare of the criminal justice system and poverty before he met Baca. After his path was rerouted by Friends, he said in a video released by the organization, he instead ended up attending the University of Oregon. 

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com   

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