Austin launches a common sense – yet uncommon – approach to child development

Personalized backpacks for the first class of Friends of the Children

Despite all efforts in Austin to provide mentors and support to our most challenged children, too many fall through the cracks. So a nonprofit new to Austin, Friends of the Children, aims to find those children and serve them with an innovative model its board chair calls, “common sense but not common practice.”

Rachel Arnold, founding board chair and senior vice president with Vista Equity Partners, says she first heard about Friends of the Children two years ago and wondered if it could work here. “When I talked to people about the model it sounded oddly revolutionary,” she said. “People hadn’t heard of anything like it.” The model borrows from the proven success of the mentor model, which pairs a volunteer adult with a child or young person who could benefit from that relationship, but employs professionals to commit for longer periods of time. These professionals, the “friends”, start with a child in Kindergarten and stay with that child through high school.

Arnold says the model is different in three important ways. First, they identify children who face the highest risks, with less stability at home and little if any adult support. To be enrolled in other programs, you need to be referred by an adult or stay in that school, said Nancy Pollard, executive director. “The kids who don’t have that,” she said, “those are our kids.” Second, it commits to stick with a child through high school, visiting that child at least four hours a week in the classroom, even if the child moves to another school. It’s child-based rather than school-based. Third, mentors are vetted, trained, and paid professionals, rather than volunteers, so that the child has a more consistent relationship. In that case, Arnold says, they’re more than mentors, they’re friends.

The model was created 25 years ago in Portland and has spread to 11 cities, but the affiliates share a common set of measures to track children’s success over the long-term. According to Friends of the Children, 83 percent of its participants graduate from high school, despite the fact that 60 percent come from parents who did not. Similarly, 93 percent avoid the juvenile justice system and 98 percent avoid becoming a teen parent, even though most of their parents experienced those challenges.

This year, the Austin Friends will serve 32 children, with plans to double that by the end of the school year. It’s an intensive model that’s significantly more expensive than other mentor programs, says Caroline Page, development director, with the cost per child at about $15,000 per year. “But if we are going to talk in a purely economical sense, the amount this population will end up costing society is astronomical,” said Page, noting it can save public money on foster care, juvenile justice, and other social services costs. “On the other hand, we’re talking about a five-year-old. That’s the value of a child, and I don’t think you can quantify that.”

Travis County Associate Court Judge Aurora Martinez Jones says she presides over more than 400 child welfare cases at any one time. “I feel like the kids are all my kids,” she said, “But they can feel like nobody cares about them.” She signed up to be a Friends of the Children board member with a “pie in the sky” goal. “We can improve the outcomes for every child whose life we touch, not just them but their families and classmates.”

PHOTO: Each child in the first class of Friends of the Children received a personalized backpack for the new school year.
NOTE: This article was also published in the Austin American-Statesman on September 2, 2018.
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