Mentoring: how it made a real difference for a Seattle gang member

A trailblazing national program born in the Northwest is gaining recognition for its mentoring seriously at-risk kids.

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Mentor and teen

A trailblazing national program born in the Northwest is gaining recognition for its mentoring seriously at-risk kids.

The boy had become a regular in juvie. By age 13 Darrell was skipping school and hanging out with the wrong crowd. A series of arrests failed to scare him straight. Even after serving time in King County’s juvenile detention facility he kept getting rearrested for violating the terms of his parole. 

In an interview Kenan, Darrell’s mentor at Friends of the Children (FOTC) King County, and Darrell himself, looking back at his life now that he’s 18, both described those years as out of control. “I sorta got swept up in it,” Darrell said. He was drawn into what the rest of the gang did, like “going out to fight, causing a whole bunch of trouble, drinking.”

When he was 3 years old Darrell (not his real name) was adopted into what he summed up as “a pretty good home.” But his father died when Darrell was 6, and his maternal grandfather, who lived with the family, died soon afterward. His mother sank into a chronic depression. “She stopped working,” said Darrell. “She wasn’t really there emotionally.” By middle school, he said, “I was smoking weed,” and in his junior year he was expelled from Franklin High for fighting.

Darrell was one of the toughest young gang members around Seattle, according to FOTC King County program director Edgar Masmela. He describes kids in Darrell’s situation as street-savvy, seemingly mature for their age, but in reality very frightened. Like other youth who join gangs, the boy had been “scared away from his goals,” said Masmela.

FOTC mentors helped Darrell gradually master his fears and resist gang pressure. “I probably would’ve done worse things if this guy [Kenan] wasn’t on my back, or calling on my cell phone. My mentor would be at the front door, so I would say to my friends, ‘I can’t go.’ ”

Duncan Campbell founded the nonprofit Friends of the Children in 1993, in his home city of Portland, Ore., when he sold his successful business and used the profits to bankroll a program that would help at-risk kids.

Eighteen years later the program has a retention rate of over 90 percent, and the 82 percent high-school graduation rate of youngsters involved far exceeds the national average (more stats are in the box at right). These exceptional results recently prompted the National Institutes of Health to launch a five-year study, led by John Mark Eddy of the UW School of Social Work, to assess the impact of FOTC on children in comparison with a control group of children outside the program.

Campbell grew up in a welfare family with alcoholic parents, and his father spent time in prison, so he has a background like the youngsters he saw during his first career as an attorney in the Portland juvenile justice system. As Campbell sees it, “Ninety-five percent of the kids coming through didn’t need to be there. They were just neglected, not raised right.”

What they needed were caring adults who could serve as role models. But “if you gave them an adult role model, it had to be over a long time in order to develop their basic skills and nurture them," he said.

So FOTC staff in Portland, Seattle, New York, and three other American cities start by visiting inner-city kindergartens and first-grade classes to find the poorest, most difficult children. “Almost to a child they don’t believe an adult cares about them,” said Campbell. “Most have little or no hope.” At school some sit listlessly, sad, and anxious. Others act out, fighting with classmates and swearing at the teacher. They seem destined for early pregnancies or prison when they get older.

FOTC matches them with trained, paid mentors who have a gift for relating to kids and who have a college degree so that they can model the importance of being educated past high school. The best candidates have worked in the juvenile justice system and witnessed firsthand that “no change takes place there,” Campbell said.

Mentors make a three-year commitment to spend individual time with each of the children assigned to them (the average Friend stays more than five years). The aim is to ensure that the mentoring of children can be sustained for 12 years without their having large numbers of different adults enter and leave their lives. Desertion and emotional abandonment by grownups have already hit these kids hard enough.

Besides academic and emotional support, each child have a chance to develop social skills and a bit of what academics call social capital. “Most of them have never been out of their neighborhood or to the beach,” Campbell said. He had an office atop a building in downtown Portland that FOTC children loved to visit. “The major point is to show them there’s a broader world than the one they’re in” so they'll be less likely to drop out of school, get addicted or arrested, or become early parents and start another wounded family. One child in Campbell’s program who was introduced to bicycling did the Seattle-to-Portland race. Another got hooked on playing hockey.

Friends of the Children opened in King County in 2000 with 16 children, said Kelly Stockman Reid, executive director of the local chapter. Now there are 91 being mentored. “We do what nobody else does,” said Reid. “We never give up on these kids.”

Her staff starts by visiting John Muir elementary school, Thurgood Marshall elementary, and Madrona K-8 to find the schools' most troubled children. During their 12 years of being mentored, if students transfer outside the Seattle school system “we stay with them … within a 30-mile-plus radius.” Thus kids in 19 different schools around King County currently meet with their Friends on a regular basis.

FOTC mentors also build relationships with the students' families, said Reid. “Our parents want the best for their kids, but they have so many obstacles, including problems in their own upbringing.” Many well-meaning parents suffered such wounding experiences in school when they were young that they deliberately or unconsciously lead their offspring to set low expectations for themselves. “They don’t want their children to be hurt by having high hopes.”

But the Friends, who engage not only with the children but with their teachers and parents, can see academic strengths in a student who is disengaged from school because of trauma or negative messages, said Reid. A mentored child starts saying, “Oh I’m smart! I just needed to try harder.”

The program is “very goal-driven,” Reid said. Children are led to set goals for themselves, always including ones that are important in school, such as improving reading, math, attendance, or behavior. Mentors guide their students’ choices and progress by referring to the Seattle-based Community Center for Education Results' milestones, which track what is critical to keeping kids on track to graduate, like reading by third grade and being prepared for algebra 9. “What we are very good at is helping kids develop a sense of hope and confidence, understand what their strengths are, and plan for the future.”

Being mentored, then, “is not a matter of becoming dependent on another person,” said Reid, “but having someone consistent and stable, a good role model, so that they can develop their own strengths, advocate for themselves, and achieve their goals, and believe in themselves.”

The work of a Friend can get intense. Reid thinks of it “as being like aunts or uncles, even if it's a paid full-time position.” Darrell’s mentor Kenan works with another boy whose sister was shot when he was 9. “Kenan was there by that boy's side for a good couple of weeks,” said Reid. “When others around him were provoking revenge, Kenan had a different message for them. Basically he kept helping the boy see how much potential he had,” and that taking revenge would mean “just more pain.”

Kenan's commitment to FOTC is rooted in early years of deprivation comparable to Darrell's. “Mentoring took hold of me because for so long I wished I had someone in my life to show me the correct way. I longed for that.” His faith in God helped him “make it out of a single-parent home, get a scholarship, graduate from college, and start working. Then it was time to help somebody else. And I saw my brother [Darrell] here was in the same situation I was in. I had been there.”

When Darrell was in jail, Kenan kept visiting him. He was his only visitor, according to Masmela, and he kept telling the boy, “This is your life. Is this what you want?” As Masmela expressed it, “We become that angel on the shoulder,” saying, ‘Do this right.’ ” At times the journey of a youngster like Darrell can suddenly detour into old and unproductve pathways, but the mentor is in it for the long haul.

Darrell recalls that during visits to him in juvie Kenan kept pushing him to do what he needed to do to get out, stay clean, and get a job. “I kept on being a knucklehead a little bit,” said Darrell, “but I didn't want to keep having to go to jail, be in the system.” And today Kenan keeps on “pushing me to do what I have to do, not just say I'll get around to it eventually.”

Now Darrell is doing well in school, he said. He’ll finish his GED by November, then take an Administration of Justice course winter quarter at Highline CC. It's his next step toward a career as a professional in the juvenile justice system. “People are there just to keep you there,” he says, and he wants to be there working differently. “I want to be a juvenile probation officer and connect with the kids, to be a true role model. I know where they’re coming from and the help they need. I want to make a difference. It’s sort of like the same thing as Kenan.”

“This guy already had that potential,” said Kenan. “It was just a matter of getting the chaos out of the way so he could see what he needs to focus on, what's going to help him benefit himself and give to others. It’s like watching flowers grow.”

FOTC's program costs $9,000 per year per child. If that sounds expensive, compare the $84,000 it costs to keep a youth in detention for a year, or the $15,000 price tag for one person in a 90-day drug treatment program, or the $15,000 spent on a young mom on Medicaid who bears a child. “By intervening early we spend a lot less,” Reid said. “It changes the person's life, impacts the classrooms the kid is in, and the neighborhood. We save society money and improve the collective quality of life.”

There's another way Reid likes to put the FOTC program in perspective: “We don't hesitate to give an 18-year-old a scholarship for college. So a child who has experienced trauma, feeling hopeless at age 6 — why wouldn't we give that child a scholarship that takes a different form? Some kids need scholarships for college, and some need them in kindergarten.”

Further information about FOTC King County can be found in a short online video outlining the program and in a longer one presenting conversations with children involved. Children's success stories posted on the national web site will inspire you, as will a powerful New York Times article about the program, which incidentally discusses the rise of mentoring in the U.S. Duncan Campbell talks in a video about founding the organization.


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