"Ideas We Should Steal" is a regular feature of the Philadelphia Citizen, which will be holding an Ideas We Should Steal Festival on Nov. 30.

When Patrick Kindred was 12 years old, an adult friend talked him into doing something pretty radical for a sixth grader: riding a bike 206 miles from Portland, Ore., to Seattle. It was …challenging, to be sure. But it also proved something to Kindred that his friend Carlos Baca already knew — that he could do whatever he set his mind to.
This wasn’t something Kindred might otherwise have learned. Born into poverty to a drug-addicted mother (also born into poverty) and a father who left when he was young, he and his two siblings spent their lives neglected in foster care. But when Kindred was 5 years old, he met Baca through a then-nascent Portland organization called Friends of the Children, which has as its mission disrupting the cycle of poverty through consistent and positive adult interaction. 
At 26, Kindred is the first college grad in his family, works in the legislative office of the state’s Health and Human Services department, and helps shape state policies for children in foster care. He is on an upward trajectory, determined not only to shed his own personal history of poverty but also help change the course for others like him — because, he says, of Friends of the Children. 
Kindred was among the first graduates of Friends of the Children, a 25-year-old program that takes a long and deep view of mentorship. It recruits the neediest children and works with them for 12.5 years, from kindergarten until they graduate from high school, using data and metrics to track their progress, understand their needs, and help them find a path to their own success. So far, the group has 350 graduates, with thousands of more children still in the pipeline, and it’s expanding around the country.

Friends of the Children was founded by Duncan Campbell, a Portland native not unlike the children he came to serve. He overcame the odds, went to law school, and became a probation officer, where he realized most of his clients wouldn’t be there if they had had caring adults who helped them early in their lives. Campbell went on to found Campbell Global, a timber investment company he sold in 1992, when he decided to turn his attention to children in poverty.

First, though, Campbell wanted to find out what worked, and after hiring a researcher, uncovered three factors needed for a successful start to life for young people: graduating from high school, avoiding the juvenile justice system, and avoiding teen pregnancy. With that research, Campbell found out how to help kids with all three: intervening in their early childhood, usually between the ages of 4 and 6.

In its 25 years, mostly spent in Portland, the group is almost unfailingly successful. Among foster-care youth who have stayed with the program through at least sophomore year of high school, 83 percent graduated high school, 98 percent avoided teen parenthood, and 93 percent avoided the criminal justice system. Compare that with those without Friends: 58 percent graduation rate, 71 percent teen pregnancies, 25 percent involved with juvenile justice system.The children in Friends of the Children are, intentionally, those with the direst need, chosen in two ways: through referrals from the foster-care system or from observations at kindergarten classes in high-poverty areas. Once enrolled, each child is assigned a “life navigator,” who spends three to four hours a week with him or her, visiting classrooms, taking the children out in the city, to ball games, museums, parks. 

Mentors follow up every meeting with a report that tracks their friends’ growth in the “core assets” that lead to resilience — things like self-management, perseverance, hope, and relationship-building — pulled from academic studies from researchers.
In some regards, Friends of the Children’s navigators are like social workers. Terri Sorensen, president of Friends of the Children, says the mentors are “friends,” who are all about the children, regardless of their circumstances. Life navigators have college degrees and undergo a rigorous screening and training process; they promise to work for at least three years but stay on average for seven, and some as long as 20, earning around $33,000 to $43,000 a year, and working one-on-one with eight children at a time.
There is no question that Philadelphia — where 25 percent of residents live below poverty — has a need for a program like Friends of the Children. And Sorensen says she would love to see it expand here — if local philanthropists can put up the $1.5 million needed for three years of operating expenses.
“It would be incredible to have it here,” says Partheev Shah, an executive at the education nonprofit BELL, who moved here about a year ago from New York, where he sits on the Friends local board. “And I don’t see it as insurmountable. We just need a champion who’s willing to step up locally to take the charge.”

 Roxanne Patel Shepelavy is executive editor of the Philadelphia Citizen, where a version of this piece originally appeared.