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Faithful Friends try to help troubled kids find the good life - Part 2

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2009 - The goal of Faithful Friends is to seek out kids who are high risk for failure.

You may or may not know the kids are in danger at first glance. They're apt to come up to you, arms outstretched, and gladly let you carry them around on your hip. Their eyes have that seemingly universal spark of children: Anything is still possible. Most of them are not shy.

Some of them smell, though, telling of poor hygiene habits at home. One little girl is legally blind without glasses, but she consistently loses them and often can't read the chalkboard at school. The boys are apt to strut like men more than twice their ages, imitating the gestures - and cursing - of older brothers and cousins.

Each friend is assigned eight children of the same sex. He or she then integrates into each child's life - from school to home - and begins the hard work of helping them reshape their destinies.

Although some of the friends have backgrounds in volunteer social work, many talk about an initial shock of going into the homes and neighborhoods of the children. Some needed to readjust their own expectations for progress with the kids.

"Academically speaking, I was surprised at how far behind these kids were," says Joshua Saleem, who's been a friend for two-and-a-half years. "I had a first grader who didn't know his ABCs. ... I'm thinking we're gonna be reading together, and I'm gonna get them at reading level by the time they finish. It was a surprise that they were that far behind and that they couldn't, even with my help, get where they needed to be."

"At first the kids were really unpredictable to me because I hadn't known them," says Mary Miller, who's been with the program as a friend since December 2007. "I hadn't worked enough in this community to know what to do."

"I don't have one family that's actually a complete family," says three-year veteran friend James Williams. "That's the most shocking and poignant part of these kids lives."

The ability to integrate into a child's family - or members of it - can be a small miracle in and of itself. The three mentors interviewed for this article agree that not every teacher or parent is on board yet, but say that most have come around. "Faithful Friends is so different from anything else, it's hard to describe," says Saleem. "It took awhile for them to get used to it."

At Mann Elementary

Mann Elementary principal Brian Zimerman was the first administrator in the area to take a chance on the program. He recalls meeting with the Faithful Friends development director at the time, Dionne Peebles, Campbell, and a board member.

"When I met with those three, everything was based on the children's success," he remembers. "Their body language told me they meant what they said. These people are really looking for something good to do for kids."

That first year, all 24 newbie kids were chosen from Mann.

Has Zimerman's gut feeling materialized?

"My discipline referrals have dropped just drastically," he says. "They not only help with the children they work with. ... It's almost like having another pair of hands in the classroom."

Each mentor learns through observation, trial, and error how to best work with each child. But for all, it seems that just being a regular and reliable adult presence cures a variety of ills.

"[Some kids] don't know where they'll live from day to day," says Saleem. "They'll act out at school and at home and with us to have some kind of control. There seemed to be a correlation between the kids who were in the worst situations and the kids with behavioral issues."

He says one of his boy's behavior really turned around once his mom got in a stable relationship, for example.

The friend is often the only adult in the child's life who sees and interacts with him or her in every arena: home, school and with peers. For this reason, friends are often able to effectively advocate on behalf of the child. Miller remembers one of her girl's struggles to keep up in first grade even as she fell further and further behind.

"If she felt cornered or not able to do something, she would just start crying," Miller says. "She was just overwhelmed at the time." At a meeting between Miller, school personnel and the girl's parents, Miller was able to point out that the girl had missed a lot of school that year and the last. Her input contributed to the school's decision to pull the girl back a grade at semester.

"They figured out she got passed up to first grade and didn't need to be in first grade," says Miller. "And that just worked wonders."

Confidence Matters

Like Miller, Williams has found that once his kids gained confidence in their ability to learn, their desire to learn skyrocketed.

"My boys, if we go and do some work now, they don't want me to read one page and them to read one page, they want to read the whole thing," he says. "If I keep giving it to them, they'll keep doing it. They enjoy the fact they can show off how smart they are."

The manners reinforcement has been paying off too, he says.

"One of my boys, I remember his mom when she was out of prison. She called me and told me, '[My son] told me I need to take my elbows off the table'." Williams says.

But don't be fooled. In no way are these kids little angels. Day camp group play is peppered with minor skirmishes and the ever-present tattling. And there is still the occasional meltdown.

"They think it's appropriate and it's OK to fly off at the cuff and use all that drama and all that screaming as long as you can justify the reason in your own mind," says Williams.

Saleem says there's still elements of that thought process in his boys, too, but that he's noticed more pause.

"I see them thinking about the choice they're going to make and the choice they had made," he says. "Whereas before it was, 'I'm gonna do this because I want to,' now they can see that they're accountable to me and all the friends and the parents and the schools."



Campbell says that the early years are undoubtedly the hardest, but that ultimately they determine the course of the child's later ones.

"You kind of know if you're going make it with the child after six or seven years," he says. "The core of our work is done in the first six or seven years."

And despite the temper tantrums or zoning out from their kids, each mentor says they're making progress -- progress that they say wouldn't be possible without that primary relationship.

"I don't think of them as my mentees," says Miller. "I think of them as my family. And they know that."

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