CINCINNATI -- Patrick Kindred was a first-grader in foster care when he became part of the nonprofit organization Friends of the Children.
Kindred got a mentor who was paid by the program to help him navigate his uncertain world, a man named Carlos Baca who quickly gained his trust.
“He showed me that my life was just as important as anybody else’s,” Kindred said. “Even when we moved into a different foster home -- Carlos was there through it all.”
Without Baca, Kindred said he’s sure he would have ended up as part of a gang in the impoverished Oregon neighborhood where he grew up.
“I guess the metaphor I would think of is the rose in concrete. How does a rose grow in concrete? How does it blossom?” said Kindred, now 26 and a college graduate. “It was Friends of the Children, investing so much time and energy.”
The Oregon-based nonprofit believes consistent, one-to-one mentoring over time is the key to breaking the cycle of generational poverty. The organization starts working with kids as early and kindergarten and stays with them through high school graduation, and it wants to bring the approach here.
Friends of the Children is working to raise $1.5 million to cover its first three years of operating costs, said Shannon Yung, Friends of the Children’s Cincinnati expansion officer.
The plan is to start by serving 32 Hamilton County children in “kinship care.” Those are kids who have been removed from their parents’ custody and are in the care of other relatives. Hamilton County Job & Family Services has contracted for $250,000 in services from the organization.
Yung said she hopes the Cincinnati chapter can start in the spring of 2019 and select children for the program in the fall with the help of Hamilton County JFS.
“That’s the goal,” she said. “But we have to raise the funds.”
This marks a return to Cincinnati for Friends of the Children.
The organization had operations here in the mid-2000s. Moira Weir, the longtime director of Hamilton County JFS, worked directly with children and families at the time.
“They had a really super facility,” Weir said. “I had a couple of kids on my caseload who would go on a Friday night and have a sleepover.”
The professional mentors working for Friends of the Children gave those kids another adult that cared about them and spent time with them, Weir said, just like Baca did for Kindred in Oregon.
But back then all of the organization’s local funding came from Hamilton County JFS, Yung said, and Friends of the Children lost that funding when the agency had drastic budget cuts about 10 years ago.
That’s why the organization is working to raise three years worth of operating funds before it launches here again, Yung said. Friends of the Children wants to ensure that it will be around for a while and is working to make sure its funding comes from a variety of sources.
So far the nonprofit has about $600,000 committed for its work here, she said, with a few outstanding grant applications that could bring it halfway to its $1.5 million goal.
Weir said she’s excited to see Friends of the Children return.
“We’ve been pushing kinship more,” she said. “We thought this would be a nice complement to be available to kinship families.”
Friends of the Children is careful to work with parents and guardians, not replace them, Yung said.
The organization’s professional mentors can be helpful to the adults in the lives of the kids they serve, too, Weir added.
“Our systems are so big and bureaucratic, it’s overwhelming if you’re a parent that has a little bit of insecurity or you’re not familiar with it,” she said.
Most importantly, though, it’s another way to help some of the community’s most vulnerable children, Weir said.
“For us it’s another tool in our toolbox,” she said. “We all know that a dedicated adult has the biggest impact in a child’s life.”
The importance of being there
Once Friends of the Children has local funding in place, it will hire four professional mentors who will be responsible for eight children each, Yung said.
The idea is for those mentors to build trust when kids are young and continue working with the same children year after year to make sure they stay on the right path for success, no matter how difficult the circumstances of their childhood.
Nationally, children who participate in Friends of the Children have better outcomes than their parents, according to the organization:
• 83 percent of youth involved in the program graduate from high school or earn a GED, although 60 percent have a parent who didn’t.
• 93 percent avoid the juvenile justice system, even though 50 percent have parents who spent time behind bars.
• And 98 percent avoid becoming parents early, although 85 percent were born to a teen parent.
The professional mentors, called “friends,” work with children for an average of eight years, Yung said.
“We ask friends to commit for three years so people understand you can’t get into a child’s life and leave a year later.”
Then there are relationships like the one Baca forged with Kindred all those years ago in Oregon.
Baca hasn’t been an employee of Friends of the Children for quite a while. But he and Kindred still keep in touch. And whenever Kindred has something important happening in his life, he said Baca is one of the first people he calls.
“There were other adults in my life,” Kindred said. “My aunt, some family members. But for the most part, that program was the most consistent thing in my life.”
Kindred recalled one particularly meaningful memory. He was going into seventh grade, and Baca talked to him about riding their bikes from Seattle to Portland -- a 206-mile ride.
Kindred decided he wanted to do it. They were training one day when there were especially bad headwinds.
Learning to be a ‘promise keeper’
“My water bottle flew out of my bike. I started crying. I was really upset and only 12 years old,” Kindred said, and he told Baca he wanted to quit. “He was like, ‘OK, P.K., how about if we finish this up. When we ride back, we’ll have a tail wind so it will be a lot easier.’”
When Baca dropped him off, he said simply: “Alright P.K., I’ll see you next week for training.’”
While the letters P.K. are the same as Kindred’s initials, the nickname stood for “Promise Keeper,” Kindred said.
“Most of the times in my life, if I tell someone I quit, there’s no one there to tell me I can’t quit,” Kindred said. “Carlos, he didn’t really make it an option. No one had ever pushed me like that before.”
That push, combined with love, was exactly what Kindred needed, he said. Baca showed him by example what it meant to be someone who followed through -- to be a promise keeper.
“I did the bike ride. Seattle to Portland, 206 miles over two days. I was sore for like a month,” Kindred said with a laugh. “The last five or 10 miles, Carlos just put his hand on my back and said, ‘We’re almost there. We’re almost there.’
“In life, to really have that person who really believes in you to the point where you start to believe in yourself, those just don’t happen a lot,” Kindred said. “Friends of the Children is that type of program.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.