TAMPA — For children ensnared in the cycle of poverty, what's often missing is stability.
A new program in Tampa Bay aims to assuage that problem by reaching into Florida's child welfare system, selecting at-risk children and giving them a mentor who will bring positivity to their life — year after year.
Eckerd, a national nonprofit based in Clearwater, announced its Friends of the Children program Thursday. Newly under way, the program will pair eight Friend figures with 64 children in its first year. Those Friends — full-time, salaried, trained mentors — will spend four hours of individual time with each of their eight children every week.
"We're rewriting destiny," said Lorita Shirley, Eckerd's chief of program services in Florida. "These are kids who have been written off. . . . We're going to break that cycle, and we're going to introduce a new legacy for these kids."
The program targets children in the foster care system who have the highest risk for "poor life outcomes," such as incarceration, teen pregnancy and dropping out of school. The Friends program stays with each child from age 5 or 6 through graduation, no matter what happens in between.
The program has $720,000 to get off the ground: $470,000 from the child welfare system, $200,000 from Eckerd and a $50,000 grant from local organizers of the 2012 Republican National Convention. It hopes to have raised $1 million to sustain the program by its third year, with a goal of expanding to add more children and Friends.
As children transition out of the child welfare system, Shirley said, the bulk of the funding will come from the private side, though new children entering the program who are still in the child welfare system will depend on public funding.
She said the biggest challenge facing Florida's foster children is a lack of consistency.
"They're so used to facing disappointment and people being in and out of their lives," she said. "These Friends serve as meaningful adults that say, 'No matter what you do, there's nothing that you can do to make me give up on you.' "
Eckerd CEO and president David Dennis called Friends of the Children "a real solution."
"So many of the kids who most need our help are in the public system," he said.
Reaching into the system and working with each child individually gets at the root of social issues, he added.
Friends of the Children began in Portland, Ore., and has since spread to cities such as Boston and New York. The Tampa Bay model is its first public-private partnership.
On the playground outside Layla's House in Sulphur Springs, where Eckerd announced the program Thursday, 7-year-old Javon Evans ate a burger alongside his new mentor, 25-year-old Greg Harvey. The two have been getting to know each other in the past month, playing football and practicing reading skills.
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Harvey benefited from the care of a mentor growing up: his Little League football coach.
"It helped me stay on the right path and make it to a status I never would've thought: going to college, and graduating, and getting a job," Harvey said. He sees the Friends program as a way to give back.
Justin Goldsmith, 37, became a Friend because of a passion for helping kids succeed.
"Teaching the kids from the base level, it's like watering a plant. The more you water it and the more you take care of it, it's going to grow into a perfect tree," he said. "They just need that push."
That kind of mentoring will fill a void, said Lisa Mayrose, interim regional managing director for the Florida Department of Children and Families.
"Now, when they have a bad day, this is someone they can reach out to," she said. "When they get a great grade, this is someone they can celebrate with."
Contact Claire McNeill at email@example.com or (813)226-3339. Follow @clairemcneill.