Planting the Seeds of Change
Long-term commitments form the basis of a new program’s aim to break the cycle of poverty in Austin
by Anne Bruno
Photographs by Hayden Spears and Claire Schaper
On a blustery December day, first-grader Javier and 25-year-old Jaime Garcia carefully choose their putters before setting out on the course at Peter Pan Mini Golf. Javier looks around, taking in the sights with excited anticipation: There’s the giant rabbit, the clock, the open-mouthed shark. It’s all new to him. Resting both hands on his putter with a look of concentration on his face, the boy carefully ponders his options, having been asked by Garcia to choose a hole for a few practice swings before starting the game. After a minute, Javier smiles, signaling that a decision has been made. “Over here!” he shouts, a note of confidence in his voice, nodding for Garcia to follow as he hurries off in the direction of a big green dinosaur.
The pair are part of the recently established Austin chapter of the nonprofit Friends of the Children (Friends Austin). As they play putt-putt golf, Garcia talks with Javier about everyday things like school, friends and family. Their easy rapport speaks to the genuine trust between them, but what’s happening isn’t without intention. A lot more than a game is taking place: While counting their strokes, Garcia, a former math teacher, helps Javier to work on his numbers; concepts like goal-setting and managing frustration are discussed as they try to get the ball through the rabbit’s feet or wait patiently on the people in front of them.
Such is the stuff of life lessons, and, according to research, this is the way children learn them best — one dedicated adult spending time with one child, not by happenstance but on purpose.
FRIENDS MAKE A DIFFERENCE
One-on-one relationships are the foundation of Friends of the Children, which started in 1993 in Portland, Oregon, and now numbers 15 chapters, Austin being the first in Texas. While the group’s mission — breaking the cycle of generational poverty — sounds audacious, so does the 12-and-a-half-year commitment (kindergarten through high school, no matter what) made to each five- or six-year-old when he or she enters the program.
The group’s atypical model employs full-time, salaried, professional mentors known as Friends. With a minimum three-year commitment, some will mentor kids from kindergarten through fifth grade and others sixth grade through high school. To be be hired, each Friend goes through a four-round interview process and background check and, in order to apply, must be bilingual and have a college degree and two years experience working with high-risk children, among other requirements.
Once hired, each Friend is paired with eight children with whom they’ll spend four hours a week. Part of that time happens in the classroom, at the child’s home, out and about in the community, or at Friends Austin’s Clubhouse. (The Clubhouse is a cozy spot stocked with books, games and toys and provides a quiet place for the pair to spend time together reading, playing or just talking.) Every interaction is intentional, as the Friends mentor the children following a set of nine core assets, which include things like problem-solving, positive relationship-building, hope, perseverance and grit.
In Austin, the children chosen for the program come from three schools in East Austin identified in partnership with AISD as having the highest number of kids living in poverty who are also most likely to fall through the cracks despite Austin’s network of community services. The six-week selection process, which takes place in the kindergarten classrooms, is led by the Friends, who’ve been trained to observe each child’s behavior and interactions. Information from the Friends’ assessments as well as those compiled by teachers and other school staff are combined to identify the 32 to 40 kindergartners who’ll participate, given their parents’ permission.
According to Friend Silvana Granados, her work with Friends Austin is much more than a job. “I grew up in circumstances similar to the kids I’m working with,” she explains. “For me, it was my coaches who really stepped in to guide me during some difficult times. They’re the ones who said to me, ‘Let’s figure this out together.’”
If not for the intervention of a few caring adults who believed in her potential, Granados says she would not have made it all the way to a college degree and the meaningful career she has today. “Being able to provide the same kind of support for someone else is very important to me — it’s the kind of work I’ve always wanted to do.”
For Friends Austin, data plays a big part in guiding the work the Friends do. Every week Granados, Garcia and the other Austin Friends compile a report that tracks each child’s progress against the core assets they’re working on. Over time, the actual impact of the Friends’ efforts on the children’s lives becomes apparent.
Rachel Arnold, a self-described “data geek” who is a principal with Austin’s Vista Equity Partners and the founding board chair of the Friends Austin chapter, first heard about the organization through her work with a software company that serves clients in the nonprofit sector. She was impressed by the way Friends had made collecting and utilizing program and outcomes data a priority since its inception. It not only helps to tell the story of success to potential funders, but more importantly, Arnold says, is the fact that “the data shows what’s actually working so the program can be refined and adjusted as needed.”
“I was blown away by what they were doing and the results,” Arnold says. “This is a program that goes deep in helping the most vulnerable children in our community learn the life skills needed to break the cycle of poverty they were born into.”
A FIT FOR AUSTIN
Nancy Pollard, the Austin chapter’s executive director who is also an attorney and volunteer advocate for CASA of Travis County, notes that as a city of entrepreneurs who value tangible outcomes, Austin is a good match for Friends Austin’s nontraditional model. But she also points out that in the midst of Austin’s booming economy, too many kids are struggling just to get a decent start.
“I want people to know that despite all the wonderful things we have going on in Austin, there are children being written off starting when they’re just five or six,” Pollard says. “The trauma and challenges kids living in poverty face lead to things like behavioral problems and falling way behind in school. If you are hungry, if you don’t have a regular bedtime and your family is moving from home to home every month, the odds that you’re going to learn in school are not in your favor. It starts very early … we can think about all the negatives that will compound over the next 12 years, or we can get these children set on a new path starting at five or six and see the positives compound.”
Pollard adds that one of the more important things the Friends do is establish an ongoing relationship with the child’s family or caregivers so they can serve as a connector to other community services.
“They’re trained to see the unmet needs in the family and then make the connection to whoever can help,” she says. “Most of the families don’t have a computer or internet access, so finding the services and then actually completing and turning in an application is no small thing. Austin has some amazing nonprofits and agencies, but many times, families just don’t know they exist or how to find them and then access the services.”
With a successful first year in the books, the Friends Austin chapter has its sights set on growth. Nine Friends currently serve 72 kids, and 40 kindergartners will be added to the program each year going forward. “By our fifth year,” Pollard says, “we plan to be serving 208 kids in Austin.”
She is especially excited about a pilot program with CASA of Travis County that will pair kindergarten-aged children with Friends at the point when a child in state custody is being reunited with his or her biological family.
“We know that this is a particularly challenging time for both the child and the entire family,” she says. “The Friends model has been shown to be helpful in other chapters at preventing kids from reentering the child welfare system. A successful family reunification is everyone’s goal, so this program will allow us to laser-focus our efforts at a particularly vulnerable time in children’s lives.”
Origins of Friends of the Children
Friends of the Children was started in 1993 by Duncan Campbell. In his book, “The Art of Being There: Creating Change, One Child at a Time,” Campbell recounts the story of growing up in Portland, Oregon, the child of working-class alcoholic parents (one of whom was incarcerated more than once). By middle school he had learned to cook his own meals and generally care for himself. He knew from an early age that no child should have to grow up as he did and vowed to do something about it one day. One of Campbell’s first jobs was with a juvenile detention center. He went on to become a CPA as well as an attorney and found success in business, becoming a millionaire many times over.
Throughout his career, Campbell worked with various groups and agencies to uncover strategies that had the biggest impact on reducing the risks children born into poverty face: dropping out of school, substance abuse, incarceration and teen parenting. What Campbell discovered ultimately became the tenets of the Friends program that exists today. A study by the Harvard Business School Association of Oregon showed that for every $1 invested in Friends of the Children, the community benefits more than $7 in saved social costs.