Taal Hasak-Lowy | Provided

Friends of the Children-Chicago, the local West Side branch of a national organization that pairs children as young as 4 years old with paid mentors until the child is finished with high school, was recently one among five organizations that received the first Gun Violence Prevention and Reduction Grant awards.

The grants are funded through Cook County’s portion of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding and total around $14.4 million over three years.

Friends of the Children-Chicago will get $1.6 million in grant funding over three years, which will allow it to expand operations from North Lawndale to the South Side.

Friends of the Children was founded in 1993 by entrepreneur Duncan Campbell and his wife, Cindy Campbell, in Portland, Ore. Taal Hasak-Lowy launched the organization’s Chicago chapter in 2018. The local organization has multiple board members and donors with Oak Park connections.

“We work with so many incredible families that have been dealing with generations of oppression, racism, hurt and trauma,” said Hasak-Lowy, who now serves as the executive director of Friends of the Children-Chicago. “We’re excited to have seen the impact on West Side families and are excited to bring that same impact south.”

The Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Kids Above All Illinois, the Roseland Cease Fire Project and Saint Anthony Hospital also received funding. The grants are managed by the Cook County Justice Advisory Council.

“These five organizations proposed different evidence-based violence programs leveraging strategies such as street outreach and case management, trauma-informed counseling, and intensive youth mentoring,” county officials explained in a June 21 statement.

Friends of the Children-Chicago also received a nearly $374,000 grant from the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) earlier this year. That money is part of the state’s Restore, Reinvest and Renew (R3) program, and uses revenue from recreational cannabis sales to fund programs operated by organizations helping residents in areas that were hardest hit in the country’s war on drugs.

Hasak-Lowy said, in addition to expanding to the South Side, the two grants will allow Friends of the Children-Chicago to increase the number of families it serves on the West Side — from 72 to 112.

Children are enrolled in Friends of the Children-Chicago through a recruitment pipeline that identifies at-risk youth.

“We work with partners to help identify the families that are struggling with a lot of trauma and violence themselves. We send out our program team to develop a relationship with that parent or caregiver to gain their trust to get them to choose to voluntarily enroll their child in our program,” said Hasak-Lowy. “So we’re seeking the people who aren’t necessarily seeking out support for their child. We just come to them once we identify which families could benefit from our level of service.”

Hasak-Lowy said she believes the mentorship program is successful because the mentoring is much more intensive and enduring than that provided in many traditional mentoring programs. Friends of the Children-Chicago provides a range of services for mentees and their families, including housing and rental assistance.

Melanie Adams, a former mentor who was recently hired as a program director for Friends of the Children-Chicago, said that even though she’s moved into an administrative role within the organization, she still keeps in touch with the kids she once mentored.

“I recently found out one of my former mentees was in the hospital and I went to visit them. They couldn’t believe that I still made time to come out and support them. Even though I’m no longer their assigned Friend, that [mentee] is my buddy,” she said. “I’m going to always be there for the kids.”

Adams added that the organization “allows you to really have a stake in children’s lives beyond hanging out for a few hours a week. I’m excited to grow these connections and extend these relationships to children and families on the Southside.”

Hasak-Lowy said the organization plans to extend its programming to the South Side Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Roseland communities.

“I’m excited for us to be able to expand community programming. Recently we did a financial literacy workshop for our caregivers, which focused on helping families create budgets and ways to not live paycheck to paycheck,” said Adams. “We’re also going to be doing things like hosting wellness initiatives for families.”

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