Gresham non-profit Family of Friends pairs at-risk kids with mentors.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Family of Friends Executive Director Michelle Kosta is excited about the new partnership with the City of Gresham. Family of Friends is all about the power of relationships — a sentiment the city of Gresham shares. The volunteer group is trying to build a community of mentors within East Multnomah County, and nowhere is the potential of their endeavor more evident than with one family who immigrated to the United States from Somalia.

Out of the seven children in that family, three have been matched with mentors.

"When we first met the mentors, things were hard for us," said 17-year-old Fartun. "Our baby sister was born prematurely, so we were focused on taking care of her. The mentors were here during it all. When there was no TV or furniture, they took the kids out to play and brought back library books, movies and games."

The family is representative of the typical ones that get connected with Family of Friends, as they are working hard to get accustomed to a new culture. It's been such a positive experience for them, that 6-year-old Bashir is already anxious to get a mentor of his own.

Stories like this led to a creative partnership between Family of Friends and Gresham, with both sides meeting needs and working collaboratively to solve problems. The city offered space in City Hall and logistical support — from communications to grant applications. In return, Family of Friends shifted its focus from Portland to Gresham, working to build a roster of kids and mentors within the community.

"We are always looking for options to improve opportunities for kids and families in the community," said Elizabeth Coffey, Gresham communications manager. "It's not something that's always been one of our strengths, so we are excited to begin working with Family of Friends and the model they have that's already proven to be successful."

The partnership was formed two months ago, and Family of Friends has grown more accustomed to its new setting and appreciative of the support, especially with only two full-time staff members, Executive Director Michelle Kosta and Program Manager Allison Yoder.

"Being connected with the city has been a game changer," Kosta said. "This has been a win-win for everyone."

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - One of the best benefits of the partnership between Family of Friends and the city of Gresham is the office space in City Hall, where Executive Director Michelle Kosta works to generate a pool of mentors in the community. Looking for a new home

Family of Friends was founded in 2003 under Trillium Family Services, which is Oregon's largest provider of mental and behavioral healthcare for children and families. In 2004 the program made its first match. In the 13 years that followed, the organization continued to grow, pairing more than 200 children with mentors — many of whom are still in contact today.

"Trillium helped us grow, but it was never a perfect mission fit," Kosta said. "But with only two of us working full-time, we didn't have the resources to split off."

At the same time Gresham leadership was listening to a final report from the Commission on Children and Families, which was tasked with researching and advising council on strategies to better support the community. The commission talked about a lack of support and services in Gresham for families, and it became something the city was actively trying to remedy despite limited resources.

Coincidentally several city employees were going through Family of Friends mentorship training, and the potential of a partnership clicked. They brought the notion to City Manager Erik Kvarsten, who gave it the green light. There was finally a landing space.

What Gresham got is an organization that has streamlined the mentoring process and knows what it is doing. Family of Friends costs about $2,000 per year, per match. That stacks up favorably with other setups in the region. Back at Trillium it would cost $900 a day for acute mental treatment for kids, which provides mental care stabilization — or basically mentoring, as Kosta describes it.

"We offer a low-cost to get resources into kids' lives," she said. "Kids with mentors have fewer depressive indicators."

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Family of Friends Program Manager Allison Yoder is one of only two fulltime employees. The rest are all volunteers. Don't have to be special to be a mentor

Family of Friends is built around the mentors, which are families, couples and individuals who step up to make time for a vulnerable kid. They don't have to be anyone special, just have some extra time and a flexible schedule. The idea is to provide another positive role model in their lives early on, helping to guide positive behavior while supporting parents who are trying to make ends meet. The kids are usually in elementary school, and could stay with their mentor until they graduate high school.

"We want to create an identity around a kid that they have the ability to finish high school and go to college," Kosta said. "Many of our kids are the first in their family to accomplish that."

Mentors usually agree to at least a one-year commitment, with weekly outings with their mentee. The group is proud to tout an 85 percent retention rate past the initial timeframe of a year, which is 35 percent higher than the national number by similarly structured organizations.

"We encourage mentors to do things they would already be doing with their kids, and not feel pressured to do anything 'special,'" Kosta said. "Many will take them to the park, have a movie night, help with homework, cook together, ride a bike — those sort of things."

The idea is to expose kids to new ways of thinking, modeling positive behavior. It also is a form of stress relief for the children and their families, as mentors will often become advocates for the families they work with. Mentors also receive regular support through follow-up sessions with case managers who help guide them through the process.

A new approach

Family of Friends has been steadily growing. In the first year it had eight matches. This past fiscal year there were 86 kids paired with mentors. The hope is the upward trend will continue, especially with the new community. Kosta said the goal is to have 20 new matches in Gresham by the summer, and even more in the following years.

"Gresham seems like a tightknit community, and we sometimes got lost in Portland," Kosta said.

But while a whiteboard in their office on the third floor of City Hall is filled with the names of students referred to the program by teachers and counselors, there are decidedly fewer mentors available. Family of Friends has already begun the process of reaching out to various organizations, like the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce. Their partners at the city have also been a big help.

Interest amongst city employees becoming mentors is high, and five are already going through the training process. Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis also sent a letter to the local faith-based communities asking for volunteers.

For the city, the partnership is an unprecedented move that could help guide future programs. If successful, the method could be used to circumvent limited resources available to the city while still providing support for the community. Officials see Family of Friends as a potential model going forward, which could help find solutions for other troublesome issues like a lack of services for the homeless.

"Thank you for believing in our program, join us in being part of the change," is written in the Family of Friends flier, released with support from the new partnership with the city. And while its unknown whether the new pairing will serve as a guiding force for future plans, things are looking brighter for Gresham families.

In the past year, Family of Friends accomplished a lot:

• 32 new relationships were built

• 54 ongoing relationships were supported

• 4,345 hours of relationship building

• 1,551 outings done by mentors and kids

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