Friends of the Children-Detroit battles generational poverty with a 12+ year mentoring model

Mentorship is a valuable tool in our communities. It helps create opportunities for those who may not have the guidance or surrounding situation to help them discover and achieve their goals. At Friends of the Children-Detroit, where I serve as executive director, we work to break the cycle of generational poverty. Formed in January of 2020, our organization is part of a national network of chapters across the U.S. that connect children who are facing systemic obstacles, and have lived through trauma, with professional, long-term mentors, or Friends. 

The model we employ at our nonprofit has been tested for almost 30 years. One of the ways it differs from traditional mentoring is that we make a commitment to our children for a minimum of 12 years, kindergarten through graduation. Some of the young adults in our national program have continued to work with their mentors beyond high school.  Another unique aspect is that our mentors are paid for the work they do. We hire and train them to empower and support our youth and their caregivers as their full-time job.

The children we select for our program range from four to six years old and have lived through adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). We partner with community organizations, schools and foster care systems to help us identify children who could most benefit from a mentor relationship. With each of our children, we strive to meet three long-term goals: to ensure they graduate from high school, to keep them out of the juvenile justice system, and to help prevent them from becoming teen parents. Our mentors spend at least four one-on-one hours a week with their children, two hours in the classroom and two outside of class, exploring and sharing a variety of activities and experiences together. 

In addition to our children and teens, our model also focuses on providing support to their caregivers. Some of our families lack transportation, or may be having challenges with employment. We work to empower them with tools and resources. We find that our caregivers benefit most from support with building parenting skills, health and wellness, workforce development and financial assistance. Over the next year, we hope to expand our services to also help families manage stress, build their credit scores, and save money to be matched.

The reason we started a chapter of Friends of the Children in the city of Detroit is because the data we collected in this area reflects a need for the services we provide. Thirty-six percent of the children we work with live in poverty, and approximately 3,000 out of 13,000 children in Michigan’s foster care systems live in the city of Detroit. 

Almost as soon as we launched our program in 2020, COVID-19 shut us down. This was an unexpected blow to everyone, including our new organization that was in need of referral partners to select children for mentoring opportunities. Fortunately, we were able to meet some of our partners before everything closed, one being the Detroit Leadership Academy. They were so committed to ensuring their children had mentors. They were our saving grace during that time, and continue to be our largest referral partner today. 

Like many businesses and organizations, we were forced to move into a virtual space during COVID-19. It was very challenging in the beginning, but it created an opportunity for us to demonstrate our commitment to our families who were also really struggling. Things improved for our children and our organization when we were able to meet again in person, but we discovered what an invaluable tool an online option is for our work. It's allowed us to have high attendance, and to alleviate the struggle some of our families face trying to get to certain meetings and workshops. We'll definitely continue using services like Zoom in the future.

Another area we're focused on is our Diversity Equity and Inclusion plan. We’ve been intentional about having diverse representation on our board. Our national office has hired a chief equity officer to serve with our board and offer us equity training. During COVID-19, our board often worked individually and met together less. This started to make members feel disconnected from the families we serve. To combat this, we’ve begun to incorporate “mission moments,” where our mentors share at meetings about the work they’re doing on the ground level. We also have volunteer engagement opportunities. Recently, one of our board members held an event at her house to collect gifts for our families at Christmas. These opportunities give our board members a chance to see and hear how their commitment directly affects our families. 

Considering the challenges we’ve faced since our launch, our organization has experienced a good deal of success. However, due to financial difficulties felt by individuals across the country from COVID-19, and a decrease in philanthropic donations, we are still having financial issues. At the moment, we're relying on grant funding. These challenges are not surprising given that we are relatively new, and even well-known organizations are struggling. The many ways the pandemic has disproportionately affected those in poverty has also put a strain on our organization. Yet, through it all, we've been given the chance to really prove our commitment to those we serve. This has built trust and strengthened our relationships with our families.  

Nicole McKinney is the executive director of Friends of the Children-Detroit. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.