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Faithful Friends try to help troubled kids find the good life - Part 1

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2009 - What is the best way to help an at-risk youth graduate high school, avoid the juvenile justice system and sidestep teen pregnancy? Is the answer as costly or complicated as fancy computer labs, harsher sentences or the abstinence-only/safe-sex debate? What if it isn't?

What if the best way to help a kid beat the odds is simply to be her friend?

Kanye West's "Good Life" plays over the speakers and the roller skating party is on at the summer camp sponsored by the mentoring program Faithful Friends. The smiles of more than 40 kids - many who've never skated before - bounce off the walls of the St. Nicholas School & Academy gymnasium.

Mentors and volunteers offer plenty of hands to hold, and bigger kids help littler ones figure out how to roll. Collisions and tumbles prove inevitable, but they don't seem to stop anyone from getting back on the rink. It's a scene of resilience and good cheer, just the traits that these kids and their mentors need.

Faithful Friends works like this: Choose the kids most at risk, pair them with a paid professional mentor (or friend) at a young age, and have that person stick with them for 12 years through high school graduation. Each friend will have no more than eight children to connect with.

Mentoring takes a variety of forms. Friends may sit in on their kids' classes, work on homework after school or take them on field trips around town. Whatever they do, each friend is expected to spend four hours of quality time with each child every week.

St. Louis was the chosen launch site for the national nonprofit, and groundwork began in 2006. Three years later, the local branch has grown to six friends and 48 kids.

Although Faithful Friends is a pilot program, the concept behind it is not new or untested. Faithful Friends is the faith-based sister of the larger secular nonprofit Friends of the Children . Both were founded by Duncan Campbell, an Oregon native who grew up as a self-described at-risk child. Campbell's story is motivational in and of itself, as he later went on to found a timber investment firm. The success of the business allowed him to start FOTC in 1992.

"When I started Friends in the very beginning, it was a ministry," he says. Although Campbell didn't have a long-term mentor growing up, his work in a juvenile court and as a child-care worker convinced him that was exactly what would help.

"I knew they wouldn't be there if they had a friend," he says. "There was early research that showed you could build resilience in these children. We got started in my old neighborhood in inner-city Portland with three friends and 24 kids."

The program has since expanded to include locations in New York City, Boston and four other metropolitan areas.

Eight hundred children have gone through or are going through FOTC. Several of the first classes of FOTC kids have finished the program. Of those, 92 percent steered clear of the justice system; 96 percent of the young women did not become teen-age mothers, and 80 percent graduated high school.

"The outcomes are revolutionary," says Campbell. "It was once just an idea, but now we know it's real and now we know that it works." The success of the program gained the attention of the National Institutes of Health, which is funding a five-year longitudinal research study of Friends of the Children.

The monetary investment per child is $9,000 a year or $108,000 over the course of the 12-year program. "Paying $108,000 for 12 years of mentoring is a bargain compared with the price of alternatives," he says. Alternatives in these cases that often include welfare, juvenile detention and incarceration.

Faithful Friends follows the same model as FOTC, but mentors are allowed and encouraged to express their faith. All mentors are Christian.

"It's one of those fine lines," says Becky Stokesbary, national director of Faithful Friends. "We are really wanting to be an example of Jesus to these kids. On the other hand, we're not trying to proselytize kids."

A complication of both programs' models is the very real possibility that friends will not stay on the full 12 years.

"It was our biggest risk when we started," says Campbell. In Portland, he says, friends have stayed an average of just under eight years, notable in a field known for its long hours and high turnover rate. Campbell says a surprising number of friends have followed through the full 12 years.

St. Louis itself poses additional challenges, says Campbell. He says the that in this city, as in Harlem in New York City or Roxbury in Boston, compromising behaviors and patterns are intergenerational and institutionalized more so than in other cities such as Portland.

"The children in each of the cities almost all live in very similar family circumstances," he says, "but the community around them compounds it or makes it even harder for the child."

For the overwhelming majority of the kids chosen for Faithful Friends, two parents don't live at home. For most, their dad is in jail or has been at some point. For some, their mom has, too. These are the kids with cousins who are not-so-much older and are in gangs or have babies on the way; the ones who had been haphazardly scraping by in a public school system whose graduation rates frankly don't promise much. These are the kids, statistically, who aren't supposed to make it in any traditional sense of the word. And they are absolutely, positively, without a doubt perfect for Faithful Friends.

"We're not skimming or creaming or picking the best kids," says Campbell.

In fact, it's just the opposite. Faithful Friends wants those least likely to succeed for one simple reason, says Campbell: They're the ones who need it most.

Anna Vitale, St. Louis, is a freelance writer.