Friendships taking flight
On a recent warm Thursday afternoon at Red Sunset Park in Gresham, two friends dumped brightly colored slime on each other to raise awareness for an important community organization.
Eleven-year-old John Olavarria was joined by his mentor Brandon McCullough as the two doused one another in green goo whenever they failed to correctly answer a trivia question. The fun event, thought up by the pair, was to support Family of Friends' Fun(d)-Factor Challenge — a month of fundraising that helps support the group and drum up awareness of the need for more mentors in Gresham.
"I feel like a human popsicle," said Olavarria Thursday, May 3, laughing despite having the slime dripping all over. "My favorite part was dumping slime on Brandon."
Family of Friends is an independent mentoring program that thrives on the power of relationships. The volunteer group, which is partnered and housed with the city of Gresham, uses a community of mentors within East Multnomah County to support vulnerable children and youths. The mentors, which can be individuals, families, or couples, provide another positive role model for the mostly elementary school-age children. They help influence good behavior through new experiences while supporting parents who have opted into the program.
And while the first 18 months in Gresham has been a big success, with 30 matches, 15 of them since July 2017, there is still a huge need for mentors. Family of Friends has a list of 40 elementary school students waiting to be matched.
"Our kids are the ones who aren't having the hardest of times, but are right on the edge in the yellow zone," said Michelle Kosta, executive director of Family of Friends. "They are awesome kids who don't have the resources from family, like money or time."
Most of the parents are single moms and dads, or disabled, so they need the extra help. They often are active in the child's life, but have recognized a need for more, voluntarily opting into Family of Friends. The goal is for the mentor to provide a relationship outside of the home, giving the children more perspective and experiences they otherwise wouldn't have.
The mentors paired through Family of Friends often stick to low-key activities, with the mentees just wanting a friend to spend time with. Most will hang out at home cooking or doing crafts, or lead trips to the park.
"A lot of our mentors join because they think they are going to help a kid," Kosta said, "and they leave saying how much they have changed."
The most recent Family of Friends activity took place Saturday morning, May 12, at the Troutdale Airport. It was an opportunity for 11 of the children and youths to go flying — the first time many had ever been in an airplane.
Last year the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 902, based in Mulino, reached out to Family of Friends offering to take the kids on short flights up the Columbia River Gorge. The partnership through the Young Eagles program made sense because the members of the flight group love giving free rides to youngsters.
"We are trying to get the pilot population built back up, so we love to do things like this," said Len Fierling, a pilot with 50 years of experience who took some of the mentees into the skies. "The best time is when you can take someone up who has never flown before."
At the airport, the kids learned all about how planes work, and once up in the air even got to take control during their flights.
Rachel Cowley, Fierling's first co-pilot, loved the whole experience. She was given the call sign "Rico," and had a blast taking the controls up in the clouds.
"My favorite part was taking off, though I was nervous," Cowley admitted.
Events like the morning of flying are put on by Family of Friends as a way to bring together the community. The program provides training, peer support and coaching for mentors. Questions can be directed to a case manager or veteran mentors, and there are monthly program-wide activities that bring together multiple pairs.
Anyone can mentor
McCullough, who works for the city of Gresham's Transportation Department — and one of the stars of the sliming challenge — decided to become a mentor 10 months ago because he loves to hang out with kids and influence their lives in a positive way.
"The program is great, super involved with the community," McCullough said. "No matter how busy, they will work to find the perfect match."
The pairing with Olavarria has been great for both of them.
"(Brandon) is really nice, and does what I want to do," said Olavarria, a fifth grader at Arthur Academy public charter school. "We go to parks, eat food and have fun."
The program coordinators' advice for anyone thinking of becoming a mentor is simple — join if you like to spend time with youths. No previous experience is needed, though there is a commitment required. A mentor is expected to stay with their child for one year, and spend at least one to two hours each week with them.
Most of those who sign on are working professionals or recent retirees, and the majority are older than 21. Before a match is made, a potential mentor must pass a background check and go through three 90-minute training sessions in consecutive weeks.
While the minimum time for a match is one year, many stay together much longer either through the formal program or afterwards as friends.
"This is a unique volunteer experience that makes a big difference for the kids in our community," Kosta said.
For more information on how to learn about becoming a mentor or where to donate, contact Program Manager Allison Yoder at 503-351-5805 or visit www.family-of-friends.org.