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Friends for life: Addressing the Opportunity Task Force recommendations

A proven model will soon begin helping Charlotte’s most vulnerable children escape poverty. It will be a long but worthwhile journey.

Will Jones

By now you know about the list.

You may not recall it came from Harvard University and UC-Berkeley. What matters is what it revealed: poor children born in Charlotte are practically guaranteed to remain in poverty their whole lives. Charlotte ranked 50th—out of 50—on a list no city wanted to be on.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force report, released in March, was a thoughtful response to the list. It provides a way out of last place.

It also points out: “There are no existing efforts to establish long-term relationships with specific children who are facing the most significant obstacles to escaping poverty.”

Reading that report caused my Thompson colleagues and me to ask: What aren’t we doing that we ought to be?

The key phrase to us was “long-term.” That connotes more than involvement; it’s a multi-year commitment.

That’s exactly what the national organization Friends of the Children does. Even before Charlotte was ranked 50th in child poverty, Friends of the Children was looking at starting an affiliate here.

Friends of the Children provides a full-time, salaried, professional mentor—called a “Friend” —with the most vulnerable kids. The commitment is from kindergarten through high school graduation. That’s 12.5 years, no matter what.

Here’s how it works. Thompson will receive $600,000 through Friends of the Children from a matching grant through the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), which was awarded in 2016 by the Corporation for National and Community Service, to launch the successful model. We’re matching that amount, which will fund the first three years. Corporate, foundation and individual partnerships will be critical.

We applaud the work being done by many to improve upward social mobility, but we believe this long-term commitment is what this community needs—and what Friends of the Children’s successful model brings. Our program will start small this spring and build over the years. In the first year, we will serve 16 children in kindergarten. By year five, we will be mentoring 192 children.

The children selected are facing the highest risks in our community—those with a 95 percent chance of not graduating high school.

The good news: This model works. A few facts:

— 93 percent of Friends’ children avoid the juvenile justice system, although half their parents are or have been incarcerated.

— 98 percent of Friends’ children avoid becoming teen parents, although 85 percent were born to teen parents.

— For every $1 invested, the community benefits with more than $7 in saved social costs. Helping one child saves the community $900,000.

There’s one caveat. Kindergartners who begin the program in early 2018 will graduate from high school in 2031. That’s a long time to await results.

We’re talking about children born into families that have been living in poverty for generations who will now have the chance to change their story and create a more hopeful, bright future. A dozen years really doesn’t seem that long.

Will Jones is president and CEO, Thompson Child & Family Focus

Editor’s Note: What’s on your mind? Email editor@qcitymetro.com. We welcome diverse viewpoints.

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