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Gresham's Family of Friends Mentoring celebrates half a decade, eyes future growth

COURTESY PHOTO: FAMILY OF FRIENDS - Family of Friends mentorship pairs came together for a family picnic at Main City Park last September. Eldon Brown became a mentor because he lost his father at a young age, and wouldn't be where he is today without other people in his life providing important guidance.

So it was an easy decision for him to get involved with Gresham's Family of Friends Mentoring and be paired with a young boy in need of similar support.

David's family enrolled him in the nonprofit program because of health issues within his family that was causing lots of stress. His father had two strokes and was struggling with memory loss. It all had been traumatic for David, and the hope was connecting with someone outside the family would allow him to open up about his emotions and worries.

COURTESY PHOTO: FAMILY OF FRIENDS - Mentor Eldon Brown and David connected thanks to similar life experiences.Thus Brown and David were paired by Family of Friends two and a half years ago.

"David realized how much he wanted to share and talk about, and Eldon was the perfect person to listen," said Michelle Kosta, executive director of Family of Friends.

The pair quickly bonded, going to the pumpkin patch, flying airplanes and just spending time together.

"David is now more confident, open to trying new things, and feels connected to this new person in his life," Kosta said.

That kind of connection is what Family of Friends continues to celebrate as it reaches the five-year milestone of being in Gresham.

Family of Friends Mentoring is a nonprofit organization that has become embedded in East Multnomah County. Initially based out of Portland, it moved east because of the greater need among local children. The group was given office space in Gresham City Hall, including wraparound support services like IT and communications, in the hope the mentorship pairings would take off.

Half a decade later that investment has continued to pay off, and Family of Friends is eyeing how it can continue to grow and evolve to support youths across the region.

"This program supports a forgotten group of kids and connects them to caring grownups that help them reach their potential," Kosta said. "Mentorships help keep the entire community connected and empowered."

Goal setting

COURTESY PHOTO: FAMILY OF FRIENDS - Mentor Eric Munos-Garcia and mentee Emanuel bonded over a love of soccer. This year, Family of Friends Mentoring has a new goal — setting and achieving goals. While mentors have always informally supported their matches' passions, and helped open doorways to new opportunities and skills, Family of Friends leadership wanted to bottle and encourage that behavior.

"We want the kids to walk away with a skill or feel empowered about something they created," Kosta said.

One of the mentor pairs, Eric Munos-Garcia and Manuel, have been building a computer together these past few months. The two first connected over a shared love of soccer, enjoying kicking the ball around on the pitch during a sunny afternoon. But they also are burgeoning gadgeteers. They took a computer, broke it down into its core components, and are putting it all back together.

Another mentorship pair, Berenice and Anabel, have been matched for about six months. Berenice wanted a mentor because changes in her household were "making her sad" and her older brother had a Family of Friends mentor of his own. So she was connected to Anabel and the pair spent last summer exploring local parks and playgrounds.

The two share an energetic and creative spirit, and have been working on learning new drawing and artistic techniques.

Other goals include making an animated film, writing a book of poetry, building a garden box, and learning how to longboard. The matches can choose any goal they want to accomplish, and Family of Friends can provide support to make that happen.

"The beautiful thing is each match is made on shared interests, experiences and skills," Kosta said.

Expanding service

COURTESY PHOTO: FAMILY OF FRIENDS - Family of Friends Mentoring pairs are matched when the kids are in elementary school. After surviving the pandemic, and with a renewed sense of interest from community members in becoming mentors, Family of Friends is experimenting with a new matching system.

This year it rolled out a pilot cohort model, where a large group of matches are all paired at the same time. That allows the matches to have a support system of peers, learning what it means to be a mentor alongside one another, and allowing for more group setting activities.

"A relationship changes as it grows and the longer you are together," Kosta said. "The cohort model has all the matches be at the same place."

Family of Friends has also implemented ways to continue serving children even as they age out of the traditional mentorship pairings.

"We want to facilitate older kids and offer peer-oriented programs that meet where they are," Kosta said.

The latest program, launched by Family of Friends earlier this month, is Latina Girls Group, hosted in partnership with Schools Uniting Neighborhoods.

The group meets 90 minutes once a week after school at Gordon Russell and Dexter McCarty middle schools. The gatherings, led by Latina mentors, lets the girls celebrate their culture and carve out a space where they feel they belong.

"The program provides a sense of belonging and culture pride, and there is a service component as well," Kosta said.

The Latina Girls Group will meet for eight weeks, building toward a project planned and executed by the kids. That project will address a specific need or problem within their community.

Along the same vein, Family of Friends is creating a Youth Council that will begin meeting in the spring. The council, made up of middle and high school students who have gone through the mentorship program, will coordinate activities for current Family of Friends mentees, plan and host gatherings and guide the direction of the nonprofit organization utilizing their unique perspectives.

"We want to champion youth voice and choice," Kosta said.

Become a mentor

COURTESY PHOTO: FAMILY OF FRIENDS - Family of Friends mentor Eric Munos-Garcia and mentee Emanuel have been matched for two and a half years, and are now building a computer together.There are three keys to being a good Family of Friends mentor — liking kids, listening to them and helping them achieve their goals.

The group matches volunteer mentors with vulnerable children ages 6-12. The mentors, who can be families, couples or individuals, provide another positive force in the child's life. They help guide positive behavior while supporting parents who are trying to make ends meet. While the kids match in elementary school, and stay together for at least one year, some will remain connected through high school.

Right now they are managing about 50 mentorships, and want to add 30 new matches each fiscal year. Ultimately, the goal is to hit 100 pairs by 2024.

And there is a need for more mentors, especially as the waitlist for children grows. The organization is specifically looking for male-identifying mentors — many of the kids on the waitlist are boys; LGBTQ mentors; bi-lingual mentors; and mentors from diverse backgrounds with a variety of interests. The program pairs mentors with kids who share similar interests, allowing for a base to build the relationship.

Becoming a mentor through Family of Friends is a one-year commitment, and mentors must be able to meet with their mentees at least once a week.

There are also other ways to support Family of Friends — sponsoring a group activity for the matches; adopting a family for the holidays; joining the Board of Directors, there are two open seats; or making monetary donations.

To learn more about Family of Friends, become a mentor or provide financial support, visit family-of-friends.org

"There aren't that many general mentoring programs in our community right now," Kosta said. "Every day we hear about the importance of having this program for (East County's) kids."


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