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Friends Of The Children…No Matter What

Photos Provided By Friends Of The Children

Portland, Seattle, Boston, Chicago…and Fargo. With a growing number of locations across the United States and the United Kingdom, Friends of the Children just announced their newest branch in Fargo-Moorhead.

According to their website, Friends of the Children is a national nonprofit that pairs children facing the greatest obstacles with a salaried, professional mentor (called a “Friend”) for 12+ years. With executive director John Fisher at the helm, they’ve opened their 18th chapter in Fargo-Moorhead.

Starting in Portland, Ore. in 1993, founder Duncan Campbell’s own troubled childhood served as the impetus for founding Friends of the Children. Campbell grew up often not knowing where his parents were or where his next meal would come from. As an adult, he found success in business thanks to his entrepreneurial spirit. Once established and successful, he wanted to return to Portland to help children much like himself.

With its chapters in major cities like Austin, San Francisco and New York, how did this organization end up in Fargo? Friends of the Children only comes to cities where it is requested, and enough of Fargo-Moorhead saw the need for this unique organization here. A group of philanthropic-minded business owners in the community and the Stand Together Foundation knew they wanted a branch here and raised the funds for its establishment. In order to start a new chapter, Friends of the Children requires the community to raise seed money for three years of funding. “In other chapters, sometimes it takes them three years to raise the money, we raised ours in less than a month. People coming together to be like, it’s that important that we have this program here and through the work of Stand Together and board members, we were able to make that happen,” said Fisher.

So how does it work? Friends of the Children will partner with community organizations to identify and select children ages four to six for enrollment in the program. Friends of the Children works with local schools to go into their kindergarten classes and assess students based on risk factors, like having a single parent, drugs in the home, experience in the foster care system, etc. They also work closely with Churches United for the Homeless and social service agencies to identify children who might benefit from the program.

Once identified, each child will be paired with a Friend who will spend three to four hours a week, one-on-one with each child, following them from kindergarten through high-school graduation. The program ensures that this relationship will last 12+ years, no matter what.

In this program, they work to break generational poverty. By coming into youth’s lives at ages four to six, they’ve seen the cycle of poverty change in the family’s trajectory. Once paired with a Friend in kindergarten, the child is guaranteed a Friend all the way through their primary schooling. Even if their initial Friend moves away or they move homes, as long as they are within a 30-mile radius of Fargo-Moorhead and as long as their caregiver wants them to continue the program, they will have a mentor.

Full-time, hired mentors serve as “Friends” in this program. They get paired with no more than eight youth as to have the maximum amount of impact on each youth. Striving to keep these mentors in the children’s lives, this isn’t a job for a short period of time. “We want people who are going to want to stick it out. This isn’t a job you do for a year. You become so engrained in the lives of these families, you don’t leave that,” said Fisher. With a five-part interview process (online application, phone, one-on-one, panel and group interviews and an outing with a youth), those applying to be Friends show how invested they are in the program.

The mentors set up roadmaps for each youth based on what that individual youth desires. “These kids, they have dreams, they have aspirations. Oftentimes, nobody taps into that for whatever reason. We want to tap into that and help them grow,” said Fisher. Instead of telling children what their goals and aspirations should be, they guide them into finding what they really want.

In addition to working with the children, the organization also knows the importance of working with their caregivers and establishing attainable goals. “In our model, the youth are the focus, but you are not just working with the youth, you are working with the caregivers and parents and grandparents or whoever is in the situation with them. You don’t want to work four hours with [the youth] and then everything they’re hearing the rest of the day is completely different,” said Fisher. “So we are working with the parents on what they want from their child. Their dream and the youth’s dreams matching up, or maybe they don’t match up. How can we help them match up?”

According to Friends of the Children, on any given day in Fargo-Moorhead, at least 50 children ages four to six are in foster care. The leading reason for a child’s placement in foster care in our region is parental substance abuse. Additionally, one in five people who are homeless in Fargo and Moorhead are children. Nearly all homeless youth (95%) and three-quarters of homeless adults (74%) in Fargo-Moorhead have experienced some type of adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect or out-of-home placement. Because of these factors and more, an organization such as Friends of the Children is necessary in Fargo-Moorhead. “Because of the need in the foster care system and the community at large, […] we just saw this mass that we had to listen to,” said Fisher.

“I know from my previous youth advocacy work in the community that this early intervention and prevention model can ensure that our children facing the toughest challenges have more choices and more opportunities as they enter adulthood,” said Fisher. Fisher previously served as the Executive Director of CHARISM, another youth-based organization here in town, and knows quite a bit about how to best serve youth in the community.

In our community, there are children facing extreme circumstances and trauma after trauma. But Fisher notes, “When our Friends come in, they say, ‘I can’t change this, but what I can do is I’m always going to be here for you. I’m always going to be here for you no matter what.’” Thanks to this new organization in town, more children will have good mentors to help them achieve their goals, and even goals they never dreamed possible.

Friends of the Children’s Fargo-Moorhead branch is currently building its board of directors and hiring program staff. If interested, visit friendsfargomoorhead.org for a list of open positions.

A third-party evaluation of Friends of the Children program graduates showed that:

83%  of program youth receive a high school diploma or GED

93% remain free from involvement in the juvenile justice system

92% of graduates go on to enroll in post-secondary education, enlist in the military or find employment

98% successfully delay parenting until after their teen years

Alexandra Martin

Written by Alexandra Martin

Alexandra Martin is the editor of Fargo Monthly. She hails from Huntsville, Alabama, but graduated from Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri with a degree in Fashion Communications. When she's not in the office, she is busy taking care of her small zoo of pets, cooking up vegetables, or listening to true-crime podcasts.

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