New-to-Austin nonprofit Friends of the Children strives to break the generational cycle of poverty by providing East Austin youth with a mentor for life.
By Lauren Jones, Photo by David Brendan Hall
Austin is a microcosm of nonprofits, a community enveloped with a passion for giving back. And Rachel Arnold, senior vice president of Vista Equity Partners, and Nancy Pollard are no exception, with their unequivocal spirit of volunteerism. The friends turned business partners recently launched the Austin chapter of Friends of the Children, a national nonprofit that provides underprivileged children with a mentor from kindergarten through high-school graduation.
Friends of the Children was founded in Portland, Ore., in 1993, and throughout the past two and a half decades, has helped youth reach key milestones for success. Nationally, 83 percent of Friends of the Children participants graduate high school, 93 percent avoid the juvenile justice system and 98 percent avoid becoming teen parents.
The model is simple, but it’s proven and measurable. When starting a new chapter in a new city, Friends of the Children representatives analyze schools that are in need, spend time in kindergarten classrooms at those schools and then evaluate which students most need a mentor in their lives.
“They are not looking for the kids that are resilient, but the kids that are succumbing to their environment and are showing behavioral issues in the classroom,” says Pollard, executive director of the Austin organization.
Children are then chosen and matched with a salaried mentor, referred to as a “friend” who stays with the kids until they reach fifth grade. A second mentor is chosen for the children as they advance from sixth through 12 grades.
Unlike some nonprofits that just skim the surface in terms of impact and result longevity, Friends of the Children empowers youth, their caregivers and the community as a whole.
“It’s the whole ‘I live here, I give here’ spirit,” Arnold says.
Last year, while Arnold was acting as the interim CEO at Social Solutions, a software company that helps nonprofits measure their impact, she met Terri Sorenson, the national president of Friends of the Children.
“My socks were completely blown off,” Arnold recalls. “They have an incredible team, really change people’s lives and it’s a super-simple program that really works and that is hard to find.”
Sorenson told Arnold the group was looking to expand its reach and, with that knowledge in mind, Arnold set out on a mission to bring the nonprofit to Austin.
“There was a huge opportunity for us to bring this program to life here in Austin,” she says. “There’s nothing like this in the community, and we have such a well-connected community here in Austin.”
After hearing about Friends of the Children from Arnold, Pollard visited Portland, Ore., in March to understand the logistics of how to start a chapter of the organization. She then spent time in the field observing the process.
“I was really struck by how much difference [the program]made in an underserved, overpopulated classroom, to have another engaged adult present, especially one whose job it was not to teach the kids, but to know all of the kids and to be their friend,” Pollard recalls. “[The friends] are assigned to one child, but their job is to be part of their community and, by nature of that, they know all the kids.”
In August, Friends of the Children Austin officially became a chapter after Arnold and Pollard raised $2.6 million through fundraising and a social-innovation grant. They also recently completed the hiring process.
Arnold and Pollard are confident in the program’s ability to change lives, and Austin Mayor Steve Adler is standing behind them.
“The inequities and challenges East Austin residents face are well documented,” Adler said in a press release. “I’m excited about the opportunity to support a program that will create opportunity for children living in this community by equipping them with the tools they need to succeed in school and become future leaders for our city.”
This month, the kindergarten selection process will begin at three Title I elementary schools in East Austin, where mentors will spend six weeks in each of the classrooms. Come May, students will officially join Friends of the Children.
Unfortunately, for children born into poverty, a future riddled with substance abuse and legal trouble is common, but it is the hope of those at Friends of the Children to reverse this damaging cycle. Although the Austin chapter is just getting started, a brighter future awaits for the children of East Austin.