Mentors serve as Friends of the Children

Nicole Howard's career revolves around befriending at-risk young people and being a stable part of their sometimes unstable lives.

"I feel like I have seven kids of my own," said Howard, who mentors first-grade girls through a program called Friends of the Children of King County. "I don't think I could ever let these girls out of my life."

Making positive change

The private, nonprofit organization Friends of the Children builds strong, long-term relationships between mentors and at-risk kids. Officials strive to bring about positive changes in the lives of children by providing "quality friendships," according to Annette de Soto, executive director of the Seattle branch.

The program has worked wonders for some of the kids at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, according to its principal, Barry Dorsey.

"Kids need to know there's hope ahead of them and dreams they can hold onto," he said. "These mentors give them that. They let the kids know that they care and that others down the line will care, too."

Stable environment

The organization pays professional mentors to befriend children with academic, social or behavioral difficulties or who come from poor home environments.

Unlike other programs, Friends of the Children requires its mentors to make a three- to five-year commitment.

"Kids need stability. We really need to ensure long-term relationships with our mentors and kids," de Soto said, stressing the importance of consistency.

A single, long-term relationship with a mentor means more to a child than several short-term relationships with different people, she added.

"Mentors can do more harm than good if they leave. This program is for people who've made a career choice to work with children," de Soto said.

Through the years

The Seattle branch employs six mentors who each work with up to eight children. Mentors meet one-on-one with each child for at least four hours a week.

Kids picked for the program are closely observed by mentors, teachers, parents and social-service workers, who base their choices upon at-risk characteristics, including attention disorders, disruptive behavior, extreme introversion and poor home environments.

Children usually start with mentors when they are first-graders; however, the Seattle branch has start-ed even earlier, with kindergar-teners.

The ideal goal is to have a mentor work with a student from kindergarten to as long as possible through school, de Soto said.

Though at-risk children usually need academic tutoring, mentors also engage in other activities that promote self-confidence, trust and people skills. Mentors take children beyond classroom walls to learn about such real-world things as checking out library books, learning the law from local police officers and visiting cultural landmarks.

Being a friend

Howard, 25, has formed relationships with seven 6-year-old girls during a 10-month period and will continue to work with the same girls for at least two more years.

Sometimes she helps them with their schoolwork, but often just "being a friend" is what really helps the girls.

"Sometimes they don't need help with their homework," Howard said. "They just need personal attention. So I'll say to them, 'Let's go get some ice cream or just take a walk.'"

She once took a child to McDonald's and taught her to say "please" and "thank you" and to use a napkin.

The most important part of being a mentor is to be "a consistent friend - unconditional, unjudging, and most important, supportive," Howard said.

Branching out

Friends of the Children workers pride themselves on the consistent, long-term service it offers. Started 11 years ago in Portland, Ore., Friends of the Children has branched out to 11 locations across the nation.

The Seattle chapter, which works with kids from Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall elementary schools, opened four years ago and has so far been very successful, according to de Soto. It has served more than 48 King County children and families since its inception.

By spring, officials at the branch hope to add two more mentors, who will take on 16 more at-risk children.

For more information about Friends of the Children, 2212 S. Jackson St., call 328-3535.

[[In-content Ad]]